CASE BrieF NO. 2019-0031


“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.”


CASE: People vs. Rey Barrion y Silva [G.R. No. 240541, January 21, 2019]

PONENTE: Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe

SUBJECT:

  1. CRIMINAL LAW:
    i. RA 9165  – Witnesses Requirements

FACTS:           This case stemmed from an Information filed before the RTC charging Barrion of the crime of Illegal Sale of Dangerous Drugs.

In the evening of August 10, 2011, members of the Station Anti-Illegal Drugs – Special Operation Task Group successfully implemented a buy-bust operation against Barrion, during which one (1) plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance was recovered from him. PO2 Dan Gonzales (PO2 Gonzales) then marked the seized item at the place of arrest, and thereafter, brought it to the police station along with Barrion. Thereat, PO2 Gonzales placed the seized item in a plastic sachet and marked the same accordingly. The seized item was then inventoried in the presence of Rodel Limbo (Limbo), a Department of Justice (DOJ) representative, and Teresita N. Reyes (Reyes), a barangay councilor. Finally, the seized item was brought to the crime laboratory, where, upon examination, the contents thereof tested positive for 0.04 gram of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, a dangerous drug.

In a Decision, the RTC found Barrion guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged, and accordingly, sentenced him to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment.

Aggrieved, Barrion appealedto the CA. In a Decision, the CA affirmed the RTC ruling. It held that all the elements of the crime charged were duly established, considering that Barrion was caught in flagrante delicto selling shabu during a buy-bust operation conducted by the police officers. Finally, it ruled that the prosecution was able to prove the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized item.

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

ISSUES:

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

B.       Under the law, who are the required witnesses during the conduct of inventory and photography of seized dangerous drugs?

C.       Is it mandatory to comply with the chain of custody requirement?

RULING:

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 [People v. Año, G.R. No. 230070, March 14, 2018]. 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.”[People v. Mamalumpon (2015)].  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 [People v. Tumulak  (2016)].

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 [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.” [People v. Bangalan, G.R. No. 232249, September 3, 2018]

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.”[People v. Macapundag, G.R. No. 225965, March 13, 2017]  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.”[People v. Segundo, G.R. No. 205614, July 26, 2017].

Nonetheless, the Court has recognized that due to varying field conditions, strict compliance with the chain of custody procedure may not always be possible [People v. Sanchez (2008)]. 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 [People v. Almorfe (2010)]. 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 [People v. De Guzman (2010)].

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.

In this case, there was a deviation from the witness requirement as the conduct of the inventory and photography was not witnessed by a media representative.

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. Here, there was none.

The Fallo

WHEREFORE, the appeal is GRANTED. The Decision dated January 30, 2018 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 08406 is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, accused-appellant Rey Barrion y Silva is ACQUITTED of the crime charged. The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is ordered to cause his immediate release, unless he is being lawfully held in custody for any other reason. SO ORDERED.

Related CASE BrieFs:

  1. People v. Año, G.R. No. 230070, March 14, 2018
  2. People v. Mamalumpon (2015)
  3. People v. Tumulak  (2016)
  4. People v. Bangalan, G.R. No. 232249, September 3, 2018
  5. People v. Macapundag, G.R. No. 225965, March 13, 2017
  6. People v. Segundo, G.R. No. 205614, July 26, 2017
  7. People v. Sanchez  (2008)
  8. People v. Almorfe (2010)
  9. People v. De Guzman (2010)

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THINGS DECIDED:

  1. 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.
  2. Case law recognizes that “marking upon immediate confiscation contemplates even marking at the nearest police station or office of the apprehending team.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Mere statements of unavailability, absent actual serious attempts to contact the required witnesses, are unacceptable as justified grounds for non-compliance.

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