Six years ago, an event heralded as a landmark accomplishment for human rights in the Philippines took place.
On March 27, 2012, the law decriminalizing vagrancy, Republic Act 10158, was signed into law.
“There are numerous reports of arbitrary arrests by police as a result of the wide discretion afforded to law enforcement by the vagrancy law,” according to the explanatory note for the Senate version of the law. “Police have rounded up the poor, accusing them of vagrancy and holding them on prison cells. Numerous cases of street children arbitrarily arrested by the police have likewise been documented.”
In a press statement released by the Senate six years ago, it was explained that “vagrancy laws were passed to discourage the idleness of the population and were created bearing the concept of criminality. Over time human rights organizations questioned the concept behind the law, while some countries had stricken off vagrancy laws as unconstitutional.”
Before R.A. 10158 became law, vagrancy was classified as a criminal offense under Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code.
Under the said code, there were three ways in which a person can be considered as a vagrant and, thus, subject to arrest.
The first was that vagrants were any able-bodied person who had “no apparent means of subsistence” and “who neglects to apply himself or herself to some lawful calling.
The second defined vagrants as “any person loitering about public places or wandering the streets without any visible means of support.”
The third viewed vagrants as “any idle or dissolute person who lodges in houses of ill fame ruffians or pimps and those who habitually associate with prostitutes.”
Because of the passage of the passage of RA 10158, authorities can no longer use these conditions as a legal justification to arrest individuals in the streets.
Under R.A. 10158, Section 1 Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code was amended to go after prostitutes instead of vagrants.
Additionally, the R.A. 10158 also directed “all persons serving sentence for violation of the provision of Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code on Vagrancy prior to its amendment by this Act shall be immediately released upon effectivity of this Act, provided that they are not serving sentence for any other offense or felony.”
Six years later, something changed.
On June 13, President Rodrio Roa Duterte ordered police to be strict against “tambays,” which is a local word play for “people on standby.” And by folk who “standby” were still viewed as loiterers, which was once a ground to be arrested for vagrancy.
The President justified his order saying tambays or loiterers were “potential trouble for the public.”
There was an immediate response from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
Atty. Jacqueline Ann C. de Guia, spokesperson for the CHR said on June 14: “We understand the administration’s intention to secure our streets and ensure public safety,” the CHR spokesperson said. “However, the arrest of any individual without a proper warrant is barred under the Constitution. No one can be arrested for being considered as a potential trouble for the public. No one can be denied their freedom without due process. As long as an individual does not commit anything illegal, there is no basis for an arrest.”
“It is not right to consider all tambays as criminals,” she added. “This is a form of discrimination that causes stigma. Those tambays could be just having a conversation in public, getting some fresh air, passing by, etc.— all normal activities that Filipinos do, whether they have jobs or not. It is important that we remember that the law views everyone equally.”
Despite the CHR’s reminder, the Philippine National Police (PNP) reported the arrest of nearly 3,000 individuals in response to the President’s order against tambays.
Critics of the Duterte administration, activists and certain sectors of the public raise an immediate outcry over the development. They pointed out that a law decriminalizing vagrancy has been passed. They said there was no longer any legal justification to arrest vagrants or loiterers.
Responding to the outcry, the PNP explained that the individuals police arrested in the campaign against tambays were not simple loiterers.
Director General Oscar Albayalde, the head of the PNP, gave the explanation during a press conference.
“They are being arrested because they have violated ordinances, not because they are tambays,” he was quoted as saying in different news reports.
He pointed out that that those individuals ran afoul of the ban on public smoking, drinking liquor in the streets and going shirtless in public.
Though the PNP chief defended the administration’s campaign against tambays, he acknowledged the resulting public outcry and confusion.
He said that the PNP will be release a guideline to help both police officers and the public understand the campaign against tambays.
According to a news report from the Philippine Star, the PNP chief explained the guidelines would help law enforcers “distinguish the difference between local ordinance offenses and vagrancy, which has been decriminalized in 2012.
The Palace also defended the campaign against tambays in a transcript of an interview released by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).
The interview was given by Atty. Harry Roque, the President’s spokesperson.
Roque explained that it was clear that police will not arrest anyone without any basis.
“Even though there is no law against tambays, there are local ordinances on curfew for minors and against public drunkenness,” he said. “There’s a law against Alarm and Scandal. That’s included in the Revised Penal Code. Never think that our law enforcers don’t know the law. Let’s give them the presumption of good faith that they’re doing their job to maintain the peace and secure our communities.”
“The President’s primary concern is the implementation of local ordinances,” he explained.
He said the President felt it was important to be wary of tambays in order to deny them the chance to commit a crime.
“So, in other words, it’s really police visibility and trying to take steps to ensure that the public knows the police is present and that if they are engaged in any conspiracy to commit crimes, the police is already there,” Roque said. “It’s really crime prevention through police visibility.” G