‘Clean riders’ and riders under inspection

In a time long past, the appearance of road checkpoints particularly in the metropolis would instantly elicit a flurry of petitions questioning their constitutionality. Checkpoints strike at the very heart of the Bill of Rights, or Article III of the 1987 Constitution. While the Supreme Court has conceded the legality of checkpoints during abnormal times and under certain circumstances, petitions by human rights advocates have provided the occasion for further clarifying the conditions under which such checkpoints may be conducted without violating fundamental constitutional rights.

We don’t hear of these petitions anymore. Perhaps, it shows how quickly we have adjusted to the exigencies of living in a war zone — which the “war on drugs,” the “war against terrorism,” and the “war against criminality,” etc. conjure daily for us. Or, maybe, it demonstrates how timidly we now accept the actions of government, for fear of being seen as taking the side of drug syndicates, terrorists and criminals. Or, perhaps we have become merely apathetic—unperturbed by acts of oppression when we are not ourselves directly affected or involved.

Most of us who commute by car or public transport will surely have witnessed, at one time or other, motorcycle riders lined up by the roadside waiting for the police to inspect their vehicles and their papers. The police justify these “random” checks by pointing to the rise in the number of crimes committed by “motorcycle-riding suspects.”

In 2017, there were on record 823,462 motorcycles registered in Metro Manila. For that same year, we are told by the police, 583 crime incidents involved the use of motorcycles. That’s exactly 0.07 percent of Metro Manila’s motorcycles. The number of motorcycles involved could be less than that, given that most of the motorbikes used might have been repeatedly employed as getaway vehicles in various crimes. It is so typical of governments that privilege peace and order over the liberty of citizens that the criminality of less than one out of every thousand motorbike riders becomes the shared burden of all motorcycle-riding commuters.

It certainly doesn’t help to improve the image of Filipino motorcyclists, who, having to continually fight for their share of the road in our car-oriented society, find themselves dangerously weaving in and out of slow-moving city traffic to the annoyance of other motorists.

Often dressed in shorts, their flimsy helmets resting unsecured on their heads, these daily riders of underbone motorbikes typically share their mount with one or, sometimes, even two pillion riders. They are the emblems of lower class mobility in a society riven by rigid and glaring inequalities. The rush-hour traffic is perhaps the only time they can get ahead of everyone else—until they are stopped for inspection by a swarm of policemen who appear from nowhere.

As a weekend rider myself, I instinctively slow down when a fellow rider is stopped by the roadside and appears to be in trouble. I have only been flagged down once for inspection, but I can well imagine what the underbone commuter rider has to go through daily at such random checkpoints.

The police officer asks to see your driver’s license and the official receipt and certificate of registration of the bike. I keep my license in my wallet, but I usually tuck a photocopy of the OR-CR underneath the bike’s seat. To access the documents, I have to dismount and unlock the seat. I start praying that the faded photocopy is still readable.

If the name on the driver’s license does not match the one on the OR-CR, which — for a variety of reasons — may often be the case, then you have some explaining to do. How are you related to the registered owner? Do you have permission to use the bike? If you bought this bike secondhand, why haven’t you officially transferred ownership to yourself? The more questions you’re asked the greater the risk that, at some point, you might reveal a deficiency. Then, anything can happen.

Legally, at these checkpoints, the police cannot ask you to show the content of your pockets, or open your bag, or look into any compartment of your bike, or, even less, frisk you. If, however, you consent to any of these on the police officer’s request, then you effectively waive your rights. But how many riders will boldly assert their right to refuse? Like the powerless in any society, they would sooner beg for protection than invoke their formal rights.

Soon after the 2016 presidential election, many motorcycle commuters began sporting “DU30” plates on their bikes. I was told it speeds up the inspection process at checkpoints. I don’t know that it does. But this practice shows a disturbing mindset at work, one that divides subjects into two: those under protection, and those who are not. Recently, the police itself has tapped into this mindset.

The PNP is now issuing “Clean Rider” windshield stickers, with a corresponding serial number sticker for the driver’s license, to motorcycle owners who voluntarily submit themselves and their motorbikes for prior screening by the police. “Think of it as a stick-on police clearance for motor bikers,” PNP Director General Oscar Albayalde was quoted as saying.

While the stickers are given free, I am not sure if this conforms with the equal protection principle enshrined in our Constitution. I am also alarmed by the announcement that certified “Clean Riders”—i.e., those with stickers — may be deputized as “force multipliers” to assist the police in conducting patrols in their areas of responsibility. Is this a prelude to the formation of a DU30 army on motorbikes?