CASE BRIEF NO. 2019-0055


“While the non-presentation of the poseur-buyer is, per se, not necessarily fatal to the cause of the prosecution, there must be at least someone else who is competent to testify as to the fact that the sale transaction indeed occurred between the poseur-buyer and the accused.


CASE: People of the Philippines vs. Rosalina Aure y Almazan and Gina Maravilla y Agnes [G.R. No. 237809, January 14, 2019]

PONENTE: Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe

SUBJECT:
          A.       SPECIAL LAW:
                    i.        RA 9165 or the “Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002”
                             –        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
                             –        Non-presentation of poseur-buyer, effect

FACTS:        On January 15, 2014, a team composed of members from the District Anti-Illegal Drugs – Special Operation Task Group (DAID-SOTG) of the Quezon City Police District conducted a buy-bust operation against Rosalina during which one (1) plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance was recovered from them. After marking the plastic sachet at the place of arrest, the apprehending officers, together with Rosalina and Gina, then proceeded to the DAID-SOTG headquarters in Camp Karingal, Quezon City, where the seized item was inventoried and photographed in the presence of a media representative. Thereafter, the seized item was brought to the crime laboratory where, upon examination, the contents thereof yielded positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, a dangerous drug. Thereafter, an Information was filed before the RTC charging Rosalina and Gina of violating Section 5, Article II of RA 9165.

Rosalina and Gina denied the charges against them. They claim that they were just going about their personal matters when two men suddenly grabbed them, and thereafter, dragged them to their vehicle and took them to Camp Karingal. Thereat, the men demanded P150,000.00 for their release, but since they could not produce the said amount, the instant criminal charge was filed against them.

The RTC found Rosalina and Gina guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged. The trial court found that the prosecution, through the testimony of the back-up arresting officer, Police Officer 3 Fernando Salonga (PO3 Salonga), had established the fact that Rosalina and Gina indeed sold shabu to the poseur-buyer, Police Officer 3 Miguel Cordero (PO3 Cordero). In this regard, the RTC opined that the failure to present the testimony of PO3 Cordero is not indispensable to Rosalina and Gina’ conviction as PO3 Salonga attested to his knowledge of the afore-described transaction.

After their respective motions for reconsideration were denied, they appealedto the Court of Appeals (CA).

The CA affirmed the RTC ruling. It held that despite the absence of the testimony of PO3 Cordero, the prosecution was nevertheless able to prove Rosalina and Gina’ commission of the crime charged through the testimony of another member of the buy-bust team, PO3 Salonga. Further, the CA ruled that the police officers substantially complied with Section 21, Article II of RA 9165 even though PO3 Cordero was not able to testify as to the links of the chain of custody of the confiscated drug and in spite of the absence of the Department of Justice (DOJ) representative and the elected public official during the inventory.

Rosalina and Gina appealed to the Supreme Court (SC) seeking that their conviction be overturned.

ISSUES:
A.       Whether the prosecution proved the guilt of Rosalina and Gina beyond reasonable doubt.
          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.

B.       Whether the non-presentation of the poseur-buyer is fatal 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 (People v. Crispo, G.R. No. 230065, March 14, 2018). 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. 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. Mamalumpon, 767 Phil. 845, 855 (2015)]. 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” (People v. Bangalan, G.R. No. 232249, September 3, 2018).

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. 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, 631 Phil. 51, 60 (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.

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.

In this case, a perusal of the Inventory of Seized/Confiscated Item/Property  readily reveals that while the inventory of the plastic sachet purportedly seized from Rosalina and Gina was conducted in the presence of a media representative, it was nevertheless done without the presence of any elected public official and DOJ representative, contrary to the afore-described procedure. When asked about this deviation from procedure, PO3 Salonga offered the following justification:

[Public Prosecutor Alexis G. Bartolome]:

Q: It appears, Mr. Witness, that there is no signature from the representative of the Department of Justice and elected barangay official where the accused was arrested, why?
A: Our team leader tried to get a representative from the barangay official and other representative, but according to our team leader, they failed to appear in our invitation to be our witness.
x x x x (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

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, PO3 Salonga tried to justify their deviation from procedure by offering the perfunctory excuse that their team leader tried to invite the required witnesses but to no avail, without really expounding on the same. Neither did the prosecution press on PO3 Salonga to determine how such earnest efforts were exerted, or even attempt to call the buy-bust team leader to the witness stand to determine whether or not earnest efforts were really done in order to ensure the required witnesses’ presence during the inventory.


B.       Moreover, the Court notes that the poseur-buyer (PO3 Cordero) was not presented as a witness during trial. In People v. Bartolini [791 Phil. 626 (2016)], the Court explained that while the non-presentation of the poseur-buyer is, per se, not necessarily fatal to the cause of the prosecution, there must be at least someone else who is competent to testify as to the fact that the sale transaction indeed occurred between the poseur-buyer and the accused. Otherwise, the testimonies of the other witnesses regarding the matter become hearsay, and thus, inadmissible in evidence.

In this case, the sole witness for the prosecution, PO3 Salonga, was a back-up arresting officer positioned inside a car 10-15 meters away from where the supposed sale transaction between PO3 Cordero and Rosalina and Gina took place. Clearly, PO3 Salonga could not competently testify on the fact of the sale as he was in no position to overhear the conversation between the transacting parties and only relied on PO3 Cordero’s pre-arranged signal to effect the arrest of Rosalina and Gina.

In view of the following circumstances, namely: (a) the unjustified deviation from the chain of custody rule which compromised the integrity and evidentiary value of the item purportedly seized from Rosalina and Gina; and (b) the prosecution’s failure to prove an essential element of the crime charged, i.e., that a sale transaction involving drugs indeed occurred between PO3 Cordero and Rosalina and Gina, the acquittal of Rosalina and Gina is warranted.

Related Case Briefs:
a)       People v. Crispo, G.R. No. 230065, March 14, 2018
b)       People v. Gamboa, G.R. No. 233702, June 20, 2018
c)       People v. Mamalumpon, 767 Phil. 845 (2015)
d)       People v. Bangalan, G.R. No. 232249, September 3, 2018
e)       People v. Macapundag, G.R. No. 225965, March 13, 2017
f)       People v. Segundo, G.R. No. 205614, July 26, 2017
g)       People v. Almorfe, 631 Phil. 51 (2010)
h)       People v. Bartolini 791 Phil. 626 (2016)

————————————————-

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. 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. 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.       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.

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 con   tact the required witnesses, are unacceptable as justified grounds for non-compliance.

E.       While the non-presentation of the poseur-buyer is, per se, not necessarily fatal to the cause of the prosecution, there must be at least someone else who is competent to testify as to the fact that the sale transaction indeed occurred between the poseur-buyer and the accused. Otherwise, the testimonies of the other witnesses regarding the matter become hearsay, and thus, inadmissible in evidence.

‘Stand by things decided’ ~ Stare Decisis


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