CASE BRIEF NO. 2019-0057


It is incumbent upon the prosecution to account for the absence of any of the required witnesses 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.”


CASE: People of the Philippines vs. Joseph Cinco a.k.a “Josephus Cinco Arciaga” [G.R. No. 239471, 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

FACTS:        This case stemmed from two (2) Informations filed before the RTC charging Arciaga with the crimes of Illegal Sale and Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs, defined and penalized under RA 9165. The prosecution alleged that on June 26, 2012, a team of officers from the PDEA-RO 7 conducted a buy-bust operation against Arciaga at his house, during which one (1) heat-sealed plastic sachet containing suspected shabu weighing 0.03 gram was recovered from him. Consequently, a search incidental to his arrest yielded three (3) more heat-sealed plastic sachets containing suspected shabu weighing 0.04 gram each. As the team noticed that a crowd was already forming outside Arciaga’s house, they, together with Arciaga, proceeded to the PDEA-RO 7 Office where the seized items were marked, photographed, and inventoriedin the presence of Barangay Captain Jerome B. Lim and media personnel Virgilio T. Salde, Jr. Thereafter, the seized items were brought to the crime laboratory for examination and tested positivefor Methamphetamine Hydrochloride or shabu, a dangerous drug.

The RTC found Arciaga guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crimes charged. The RTC found that the prosecution sufficiently established all the elements of the aforesaid crimes as it was able to prove that: (a) Arciaga indeed sold a plastic sachet containing shabu to the poseur-buyer during a legitimate buy-bust operation; and (b) subsequent to his arrest, more plastic sachets containing shabu were recovered from him. The RTC further observed that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items had been preserved, considering that the buy-bust team sufficiently complied with the chain of custody rule.

The CA affirmed the RTC ruling, holding that all the elements of the crimes of Illegal Sale and Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drug were present and that the chain of custody rule was duly complied with.

Hence, Arciaga appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court.


ISSUE:
A.       Whether the prosecution proved the guilt of Arciaga 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.


RULING:
A.       In cases for Illegal Sale and/or 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. Viterbo, 739 Phil. 593 (2014)]. 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. It is well to clarify, however, that under 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, the foregoing procedures may instead be conducted at the place where the arrest or seizure occurred, at the nearest police station or at the nearest office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable, in instances of warrantless seizures – such as in buy-bust operations. In fact, 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, 767 Phil. 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 [People v. Tumulak, 791 Phil. 148, 160-161 (2016)].

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, “[a]n elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service (NPS) OR the media.”

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 [People v. Sanchez, 590 Phil. 214, 234 (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. The foregoing is based on the saving clause found in Section 21 (a), Article II of the IRR of RA 9165, which was 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, 630 Phil. 637, 649 (2010)].

Anent the required witnesses rule, 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, while the Court agrees with the courts a quo that the buy-bust team was justified in conducting the marking, inventory, and photography at the PDEA-RO 7 Office due to security reasons, i.e., a crowd was already forming at the place of Arciaga’s arrest, it is nevertheless apparent that, as seen in the Certificate of Inventory, the inventory of the seized’ items was not conducted in the presence of a DOJ representative, contrary to the afore-described procedure. This was confirmed by no less than the poseur-buyer, Intelligence Officer I Edd Ryan Dayuha (IO1 Dayuha), in his testimony during cross-examination.

Neither do the records reflect that such witness was present during the photography of the seized items, which process is usually conducted contemporaneously with the inventory thereof. It is incumbent upon the prosecution to account for the absence of any of the required witnesses 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. While IO1 Dayuha implicitly acknowledged the absence of a DOJ representative during the conduct of inventory and photography, records are bereft of any reason and/or justification therefor. Thus, in view of these unjustified deviations from the chain of custody rule, the Court is constrained to conclude that the integrity and evidentiary value of the items purportedly seized from Arciaga had been compromised, which consequently warrants his acquittal.

Related Case Briefs:
a)       People v. Viterbo, 739 Phil. 593 (2014)
b)       People v. Gamboa, G.R. No. 233702, June 20, 2018
c)       People v. Año, G.R. No. 230070, March 14, 2018
d)       People v. Mamalumpon, 767 Phil. 845 (2015)
e)       People v. Tumulak, 791 Phil. 148 (2016)
f)       People v. Segundo, G.R. No. 205614, July 26, 2017
g)       People v. Sanchez, 590 Phil. 214 (2008)
h)       People v. De Guzman, 630 Phil. 637 (2010)
————————————————-

THINGS DECIDED:

A.       In cases for Illegal Sale and/or 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. Viterbo, 739 Phil. 593 (2014)]. 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).

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 (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. It is well to clarify, however, that under 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, the foregoing procedures may instead be conducted at the place where the arrest or seizure occurred, at the nearest police station or at the nearest office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable, in instances of warrantless seizures – such as in buy-bust operations. In fact, 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, 767 Phil. 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 [People v. Tumulak, 791 Phil. 148, 160-161 (2016)].

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, “[a]n elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service (NPS) OR the media.”

D.      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, 590 Phil. 214, 234 (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. The foregoing is based on the saving clause found in Section 21 (a), Article II of the IRR of RA 9165, which was 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, 630 Phil. 637, 649 (2010)].

E.       Anent the required witnesses rule, 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. 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].

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