CASE BRIEF 2019-0007

CASE: Edwin Fuentes @ “Kanyod,” vs. People of the Philippines [G.R. No. 228718, January 07, 2019]

PONENTE: Perlas-Bernabe, J.:

SUBJECT:
1.  RA 10640: Chain of Custody; Witness requirement;
2. Criminal Procedure: Effect of appeal by any of the several accused

FACTS:        On August 25, 2006, Police Officer 1 Mark Sherwin Forastero (PO1 Forastero), Senior Police Officer 1 Benjamin Madriaga (SPO1 Madriaga), and several other membersof the Station Anti-Illegal Drugs-Special Operations Task Force (SAID-SOTF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP), after coordination with the PDEA conducted a surveillance on certain persons suspected of illegal drug peddling including Edwin Fuentes. Upon arrival at the area of operation, PO1 Forastero and SPO1 Madriaga entered an alley near the Philippine National Railways (PNR) site, where they saw a certain Calotes in the act of handing Fuentes what appeared to be a plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance. Immediately, PO1 Forastero grabbed Calotes and confiscated a plastic sachet from him while SPO1 Madriaga apprehended Fuentes from whom he recovered two (2) more plastic sachets. They then proceeded to the SAID-SOTF headquarters in Muntinlupa City, where PO1 Forastero and SPO1 Madriaga marked the seized plastic sachets, and conducted an inventory thereof in the presence of Nestor T. Gianan (Gianan), the City Architect of Muntinlupa City. After preparing a request for laboratory examinationof the seized items, PO1 Forastero together with SPO1 Madriagabrought the said request and the seized items to the crime laboratory, where a qualitative examination conducted by Police Inspector May Andrea A. Bonifacio (P/Insp. Bonifacio) on the specimens yielded positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride or “shabu,” a dangerous drug.

Two (2) Informations were filed charging Fuentes and Calotes with Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs.

The RTC found Fuentes and Calotes guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 11, Article II of RA 9165.

On appeal, the CA affirmed their conviction. Only Fuentes filed a petition before the Supreme Court.


ISSUES:

A. Who are the required witnesses during the photocopying and inventory of seized dangerous drugs?
B. Is it mandatory that these witnesses present during the photocopying and inventory of seized dangerous drugs?
C. Whether the apprehending officers complied with the requirements provided by RA 10640.
D. If Fuentes was acquitted by the Supreme Court, will it benefit Calotes, although he did not joined the former in appealing the CA Decision?

HELD:

(A) To establish the identity of the dangerous drug with moral certainty, the prosecution must be able to account for each link of the chain of custody from the moment the drugs are seized up to their presentation in court as evidence of the crime. As part of the chain of custody procedure, the law requires that the apprehending team, immediately after seizure and confiscation, conduct a physical inventory and photograph the seized items in the presence of the accused or the person from whom the items were seized, or his representative or counsel, as well as certain required witnesses namely: (a) if prior to the amendment of RA 9165 by RA 10640, “a representative from the media AND the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official”;or (b) if after the amendment of RA 9165 by RA 10640, “an elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service OR the media.” The law requires the presence of these witnesses primarily “to ensure the establishment of the chain of custody and remove any suspicion of switching, planting, or contamination of evidence.” (Read related case brief: [CASE BRIEF 2019-0004] People vs. Mark Vincent Corral; [CASE BRIEF 2019-0005] People of the Philippines vs. Rodelina Malazo

(B) No, it is not mandatory. The Court has recognized that due to varying field conditions, strict compliance with the chain of custody procedure may not always be possible. As such, deviations from the procedure may be allowed, provided that the prosecution satisfactorily proves that: (a) there is a justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved. The foregoing is based on the saving clause found in Section 21 (a), Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 9165, which was later adopted into the text of RA 10640.
It is the compliance with the chain of custody procedure, or the presence of justifiable reasons for non-compliance, which must be proved; in this relation, it is the procedure of proving the same which is prescribed in the ordinary rules of evidence, which is, on the other hand, what our courts have discretion over. Thus, when a court finds that non-compliance with the chain of custody rule is allowable, it does not exercise its discretion to relax a Court-issued rule; rather, it determines that the prosecution was able to prove that: (a) there is a justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved. In so doing, the court only applies the saving – clause found in the law.

C. No, the records disclose glaring and unjustifiable deviations from the chain of custody procedure, as follows:
First, witnesses PO1 Forasteroand SPO1 Madriagaboth testified that they were in possession of the plastic sachets confiscated from Fuentes and Calotes, with SPO1 Madriaga keeping in his possession the two (2) plastic sachets seized from Fuentes. They marked the seized items in the police station and after a request for laboratory examination had been prepared, both of them went to the PNP Crime Laboratory to deliver the said request and the seized items.
Unfortunately, PO1 Forastero and SPO1 Madriaga failed to identify who received the request for laboratory examination and the seized items at the crime laboratory. Records show that before the specimens were handled by and subjected to qualitative examination by P/Insp. Bonifacio, the forensic chemist, the items were received by a certain “Relos,” as clearly reflected on the lower left hand portionof the request for laboratory examination. Neither has it been established who handled the same before and after P/Insp. Bonifacio rendered her findings until the same had been presented in court as evidence for purposes of identification.

Second, although the arresting officers prepared a Certificate of Inventory at the police station immediately after the arrest, the records are bereft of evidence showing that the seized items were photographed, much more in the presence of Fuentes, or his representative or counsel, as well as the witnesses required by law.
And finally, there was also a deviation from the witness requirement as the conduct of inventory was not witnessed by an elected public official, a DOJ representative, and a media representative. This may be gleaned from the Certificate of Inventory which shows that the same was witnessed only by City Architect Gianan, who is not considered as an elected public official.

As earlier stated, it is incumbent upon the prosecution to account for these witnesses’ absence by presenting a justifiable reason therefor or, at the very least, by showing that genuine and sufficient efforts were exerted by the apprehending officers to secure their presence. As the Court sees it, the prosecution did not faithfully comply with these standards and unfortunately, failed to justify non-compliance. As such, the Court is constrained to conclude that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized drugs have been compromised, which perforce warrants Fuentes’ acquittal.

(D)     The Court deems it proper to likewise acquit Calotes, although he did not joined Fuentes in the petition, of the crime charged. This is because the criminal case against Calotes arose from the same set of facts as the case against Fuentes and that such acquittal is definitely favorable and beneficial to him. Section 11 (a), Rule 122 of the Revised Rules on Criminal Procedure states that:

Section II. Effect Of appeal by any of several accused. –

(a) An appeal taken by one or more of several accused shall not affect those who did not appeal, except insofar as the judgment of the appellate court is favorable and applicable to the latter.

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THINGS DECIDED:

A)      As part of the chain of custody procedure, the law requires that the apprehending team, immediately after seizure and confiscation, conduct a physical inventory and photograph the seized items in the presence of the accused or the person from whom the items were seized, or his representative or counsel, as well as certain required witnesses namely: (a) if prior to the amendment of RA 9165 by RA 10640, “a representative from the media AND the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official”;or (b) if after the amendment of RA 9165 by RA 10640, “an elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service OR the media.”

B)       The Court has recognized that due to varying field conditions, strict compliance with the chain of custody procedure may not always be possible. As such, deviations from the procedure may be allowed, provided that the prosecution satisfactorily proves that: (a) there is a justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved.

C)      An appeal taken by one or more of several accused shall not affect those who did not appeal, except insofar as the judgment of the appellate court is favorable and applicable to the latter.

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