CASE BRIEF NO. 2019-0054


“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.


CASE: Dennis Loayon y Luis vs. People of the Philippines [G.R. No. 232940, January 14, 2019]

PONENTE: Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe

SUBJECT:
          A.       SPECIAL LAW:
                   i.        RA 9165 or The Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act
                             –        Chain of Custody
                             –        Witness requirement
                             –        How and when to conduct the marking, physical inventory, and photography of the seized items be conducted
                   ii.       Illegal possession of dangerous drugs
                             –        Elements

FACTS:        An Information was filed before the RTC accusing Dennis Loayon of the crime of Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs under RA 9165. The prosecution alleged that, on February 24, 2010, a buy-bust team composed of police officers from the QCPD Station 9 conducted a buy-bust operation against a certain “Awang.” However, before the sale transaction between Awang and the poseur-buyer took place, Awang’s companion, later identified as Loayon, shouted “Pulis yan!” after recognizing the poseur-buyer as a policeman, which prompted Awang and Loayon to run away in different directions. While Awang was able to elude the buy-bust team, one of the policemen, was able to corner Loayon, resulting in the latter’s arrest. Recovered from Loayon is a plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance. Thereafter, the buy-bust team, together with Loayon, went to QCPD Station 9 where, inter alia, the seized item was marked, photographed, and inventoried in the presence of Barangay Kagawad Rommel Asuncion. The seized plastic sachet was then brought to the crime laboratory where, after examination, the contents thereof yielded positive for 0.03 gram of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or shabu, a dangerous drug.

The RTC found Loayon guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged. Aggrieved, Loayon appealed to the Court of Appeals (CA).

The CA affirmed the RTC ruling. It held that the policemen’s positive identification of Loayon as the possessor of the seized plastic sachet, which he threw away while he was being chased, shall prevail over the latter’s bare denials, which was uncorroborated by other evidence. Moreover, it observed that the prosecution was able to prove the crucial links in the chain of custody of the seized item.

Undaunted, Loayon moved for reconsideration, but the same was denied in a Resolution; hence, he appealed to the Supreme Court (SC).


ISSUES:
A.       Whether Loayon is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs under RA 9165.
          a.       What must be proved to establish the identity of the dangerous drugs with moral certainty?
          b.       How and when should the marking, physical inventory, and photography of the seized items be conducted?
          c.       Who are the required witnesses during the marking, physical inventory, and photography of the seized items?
          d.       Whether compliance with the chain of custody procedure is strictly enjoined.


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 (People v. Gamboa, G.R. No. 233702, June 20, 2018).

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 (People v. Tumulak, 791 Phil. 148, 160-161 (2016). 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, 767Phil. 845, 855 (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.

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” [Section 21 (1) and (2) Article II of RA 9165 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations]; 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” (Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, as amended by RA 10640).

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”(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. 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 [People v. Almorfe, 631 Phil. 51, 60 (2010)], 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 (People v. Gamboa, G.R. No. 233702, June 20, 2018). 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 inventory and photography was not witnessed by representatives from the DOJ and the media. This may be easily gleaned from the Inventory of Seized Properties/Itemswhich only confirms the presence of an elected public official, i.e., Brgy. Kagawad Asuncion. Such finding is also confirmed by the testimony of the poseur-buyer, PO2 De Vera on direct and cross-examination.

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, while PO2 De Vera acknowledged the absence of representatives from the DOJ and the media during the conduct of inventory and photography, he merely offered the perfunctory explanation that “no one was available” without showing whether the buy-bust team exerted earnest efforts to secure their attendance therein. 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 item purportedly seized from Loayon was compromised, which consequently warrants his acquittal.

Related Case Briefs:
a)       People v. Gamboa, G.R. No. 233702, June 20, 2018
b)       People v. Almorfe, 631 Phil. 51 (2010
c)       People v. Segundo, G.R. No. 205614, July 26, 2017
d)       People v. Año, G.R. No. 230070, March 14, 2018
e)       People v. Tumulak, 791 Phil. 148 (2016)
f)       People v. Mamalumpon, 767 Phil. 845 (2015).
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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. 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.

B.       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.

C.       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”.

D.       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” [Section 21 (1) and (2) Article II of RA 9165 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations]; 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” (Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, as amended by RA 10640).

E.       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.

F.       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.

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