CASE BrieF NO. 2019-0017

CASE: People of the Philippines vs. Don Emilio Cariño y Agustin a.k.a. “Don Emilio” [G.R. No. 233336, January 14, 2019]

PONENTE: Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe

SUBJECT:

  1. R.A. 9165 as amended by R.A. 10640:
    i. Illegal Sale and/or Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs
    ii. Chain of Custody
    iii. Required witnesses during inventory

“The witness requirement mandates the presence of the witnesses during the conduct of the inventory”


FACTS:        Policemen of the Special Operations Group of the Negros Oriental Police Provincial Office successfully conducted a buy-bust operation against Don Emilio Cariño, during which one (1) plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance was recovered from him. When Cariño was searched incidental to his arrest, the policemen recovered another plastic sachet containing the same substance from him. While waiting for the arrival of the witnesses – namely, Barangay Kagawad Chona Merced (Kagawad Merced), Department of Justice Representative Ramonito Astillero and Media Representative Juancho Gallarde policemen then conducted the marking and inventory at the place of arrest in Cariño’s presence. Upon the witnesses’ arrival thereat, the policemen presented the Inventory/Receipt of Property Seizedto them and they signed the same. Thereafter, Cariño and the seized items were taken to the police headquarters where the necessary paperworks for examination were prepared. The seized items were then brought to the crime laboratory where, after examination,the contents thereof yielded positive for 0.09 and 0.04 gram, respectively, of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, a dangerous drug.

The RTC found Cariño guilty as charged. Cariño moved for reconsideration but the same was denied. Aggrieved, he appealedto the CA.

The CA affirmed the RTC ruling. It held that the prosecution had established beyond reasonable doubt all the elements of the crimes charged against Cariño, and that the conduct of inventory prior to the arrival of the witnesses, among others, did not tarnish the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items.

ISSUE:

A. What must be proven by the prosecution to establish the identity of the dangerous drug with moral certainty?

B. Who are the required witnesses during the inventory of seized dangerous drugs?

C. Is it mandatory to comply with the chain of custody procedure under R.A. 9165, as amended?

D. Is it mandatory to comply with the witness requirement under R.A. 9165, as amended?

E. Whether or not the apprehending police authorities complied with the required witnesses under R.A. 9165, as amended?

RULING:

A.       In cases for Illegal Sale and/or Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs under RA 9165, it is essential that the identity of the dangerous drug be established with moral certainty, considering that the dangerous drug itself forms an integral part of the corpus delicti of the crime. Failing to prove the integrity of the corpus delicti renders the evidence for the State insufficient to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt and, hence, warrants an acquittal.

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, inter alia, that the marking, physical inventory, and photography of the seized items be conducted immediately after seizure and confiscation of the same. In this regard, case law recognizes that “marking upon immediate confiscation contemplates even marking at the nearest police station or office of the apprehending team.” Hence, the failure to immediately mark the confiscated items at the place of arrest neither renders them inadmissible in evidence nor impairs the integrity of the seized drugs, as the conduct of marking at the nearest police station or office of the apprehending team is sufficient compliance with the rules on chain of custody.

B.       The law further requires that the said inventory and photography be done 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.”

C.       As a general rule, compliance with the chain of custody procedure is strictly enjoined as the same has been regarded “not merely as a procedural technicality but as a matter of substantive law.” This is because “the law has been crafted by Congress as safety precautions to address potential police abuses, especially considering that the penalty imposed may be life imprisonment.”

Nonetheless, 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, the failure of the apprehending team to strictly comply with the same would not ipso facto render the seizure and custody over the items as void and invalid, 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 should, however, be emphasized that for the saving clause to apply, the prosecution must duly explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses, and that the justifiable ground for non-compliance must be proven as a fact, because the Court cannot presume what these grounds are or that they even exist.

D.      Anent the witness requirement, non-compliance may be permitted if the prosecution proves that the apprehending officers exerted genuine and sufficient efforts to secure the presence of such witnesses, albeit they eventually failed to appear. While the earnestness of these efforts must be examined on a case-to-case basis, the overarching objective is for the Court to be convinced that the failure to comply was reasonable under the given circumstances. Thus, mere statements of unavailability, absent actual serious attempts to contact the required witnesses, are unacceptable as justified grounds for non-compliance. These considerations arise from the fact that police officers are ordinarily given sufficient time – beginning from the moment they have received the information about the activities of the accused until the time of his arrest – to prepare for a buy-bust operation and consequently, make the necessary arrangements beforehand, knowing fully well that they would have to strictly comply with the chain of custody rule.

E. An examination of the records would show that these witnesses arrived after the apprehending policemen had already completed the inventory, and that they were merely asked to sign the aforesaid inventory form.

The inventory was not conducted in the presence of the required witnesses as the apprehending policemen already prepared the Inventory/Receipt of Property Seized when they arrived at the scene of arrest and only made them sign the same. As discussed, the witness requirement mandates the presence of the witnesses during the conduct of the inventory, so as to ensure that the evils of switching, planting, or contamination of evidence will be adequately prevented. Hence, non-compliance therewith puts the onus on the prosecution to provide a justifiable reason therefor, especially considering that the rule exists to ensure that protection is given to those whose life and liberty are put at risk. Unfortunately, no such explanation was proferred by the prosecution to justify this glaring procedural lapse. In view of this unjustified deviation from the chain of custody rule, the Court is therefore constrained to conclude that the integrity and evidentiary value of the items purportedly seized from Cariño were compromised, which consequently warrants his acquittal.

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THINGS DECIDED:

A) In cases for Illegal Sale and/or Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs under RA 9165, it is essential that the identity of the dangerous drug be established with moral certainty, considering that the dangerous drug itself forms an integral part of the corpus delicti of the crime.

B) The law further requires that the said inventory and photography be done 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.”

C) The failure of the apprehending team to strictly comply with the chain of custody would not ipso facto render the seizure and custody over the items as void and invalid, 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.

D) Non-compliance with the witness requirement may be permitted if the prosecution proves that the apprehending officers exerted genuine and sufficient efforts to secure the presence of such witnesses, albeit they eventually failed to appear.

E) The witness requirement mandates the presence of the witnesses during the conduct of the inventory, so as to ensure that the evils of switching, planting, or contamination of evidence will be adequately prevented. Hence, non-compliance therewith puts the onus on the prosecution to provide a justifiable reason therefor, especially considering that the rule exists to ensure that protection is given to those whose life and liberty are put at risk.

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