CASE BrieF NO. 2019-0022

CASE: People of the Philippines vs. Lito Paming y Javier [G.R. No. 241091, January 14, 2019]

PONENTE: Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe

SUBJECT:

  1. Revised Penal Code:
    i. RA 9165 as amended by RA 10640 – Witnesses requirement
    ii. Chain of Custody

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.


FACTS:

This case stemmed from two (2) Informations filed before the RTC accusing Paming of the crimes of Illegal Sale and Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs, respectively defined and penalized under Sections 5 and 11, Article II of RA 9165. The prosecution alleged that members of the Paracale Municipal Police Station successfully implemented a buy-bust operation against Paming, during which one (1) heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing 0.03 gram of white crystalline substance was recovered from him. When Paming was searched after his arrest, the police officers were able to seize a matchbox holding twenty-eight (28) more heat-sealed transparent plastic sachets containing a white crystalline substance from his possession. The police officers then took Paming to a nearby billiard hall for marking of the confiscated drugs, but due to the increasing number of people, they transferred to the police station to continue the marking. At the police station, the seized items were turned over to the Desk Officer and the Investigator, who instructed the poseur-buyer to put markings on the items. Thereafter, the seized items were brought to the crime laboratory where, after examination, the contents thereof yielded positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, a dangerous drug.

In defense, Paming denied the charges against him, claiming instead, that he was having a drinking spree with friends when he was approached by one Gil alias “Tatong” who told him that he wanted to “score.” When he replied that he did not know what that meant, five men suddenly ganged up on him and dragged him to a nearby billiard hall. Tatong then shouted: “Sir, nandito po sa posporo,” and handed a matchbox to Police Officer 2 Jason R. Poot (PO2 Poot), who pocketed it. Paming was then brought to the police station where he was detained for two days, and was later made to sign a piece of paper purportedly containing an inventory of the seized items.

The RTC found Paming guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crimes charged.

Aggrieved, Paming 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 Paming, and that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items have been preserved due to the arresting officers’ substantial compliance with the chain of custody rule.

Hence, he appealed to the Supreme Court seeking his conviction be overturned.

ISSUES:

A.       When and where should marking of the confiscated item be made?
B.       Who are the required witnesses during the inventory of confiscated drugs?
C.       Whether the presence of the witnesses during inventory is mandatory?
D.      Whether the apprehending police authorities complied with the witness requirements in this case.

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.

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.

D.      In this case, there appears to be an absence of the required inventory­ taking in the presence of the accused, or his representative, and the required witnesses, i.e., the elected public official and representatives from the media and the DOJ. A thorough examination of the records of this case reveals that no physical inventory report was submitted as evidence before the lower court. Although photographs were offered, there was no proof that these were done in the presence of the accused, or the required witnesses.

As earlier stated, it is incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that there was an actual inventory and photography done, and that it was conducted in the presence of the accused and the required witnesses. While PO2 Poot claimed that there was a purported inventory report, none was offered in evidence. This raises serious doubts as to its existence. Even assuming that there was such a report, PO2 Poot likewise confirmed that only the Investigator signed the same. In fact, the accused was in the investigation room while the alleged inventory was conducted. Furthermore, none of the required witnesses were present, and no justifiable reason was offered nor was there a showing that genuine and sufficient efforts were exerted by the apprehending officers to secure their presence. In view of these unjustified deviations 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 Paming 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) Case law recognizes that “marking upon immediate confiscation contemplates even marking at the nearest police station or office of the apprehending team.

C) 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.

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.

‘Stand by things decided’ ~ Stare Decisis


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