CASE BRIEF NO. 2019-0071


“Breaches of the procedure outlined in Section 21 committed by the police officers, left unacknowledged and unexplained by the State, militate against a finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt against the accused.


CASE: People of the Philippines vs. Dondon Guerrero [G.R. No. 228881, February 06, 2019]

PONENTE: Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa

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
                             –        Illegal sale of dangerous drugs –   Elements

FACTS:        On August 31, 2013, a confidential informant came to the office of Regional Anti-Illegal Drug Special Operations Task Group  (RAIDSOTG) Region I and reported to SPO1 Rosario that Dondon Guerrero and Marian Dagium were looking for buyers of shabu. SPO1 Rosario reported this to their team leader, who in turn ordered SPO1 Rosario to transact with Guerrero and Dagium. SPO1 Rosario contacted Guerrero and informed him that he was interested in buying P5,000.00 worth of shabu. They agreed to meet near the RITZ Apartelle.

During a meeting with some PDEA authorities, SPO1 Rosario was designated as the poseur buyer, SPO1 Bitabit as the arresting officer.

On the day of the entrapment operation, the CI informed Guerrero that they were already in front of the apartelle. Guerrero and three others came out from the building. Guerrero approached SPO1 Rosario. Guerrero then asked SPO1 Rosario if he has the money and SPO1 Rosario likewise asked if Guerrero has the “stuff with him. Guerrero answered in the affirmative. Guerrero’s companion took the marked money while Guerrero handed over to SPO1 Rosario a transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance. SPO1 Rosario confirmed that the contents of the sachet as shabu and then executed a pre-arranged signal by lighting a cigarette. This signal prompted the back-up team to approach the group and arrest the four individuals, including Guerrero.

The recovered items were marked by SPO1 Rosario in the place of arrest, in the presence of other members of the team, Dominador Dacanay of DZNL and barangay official Americo Flores. However, because it was dark in that place, the team leader ordered that they continue the inventory in their office at Camp Florendo Parian, San Fernando City.

In Camp Florendo, the inventory of the seized items was continued. Pictures were taken during the inventory. After the Certificate of Inventory was signed, SPO1 Rosario delivered the three plastic sachets of suspected shabu to the Forensic Chemist of PDEA.

The laboratory examination confirmed that the three sachets contained methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu.

Thereafter, Guerrero was charged with illegal sale of dangerous drugs, defined and penalized under Section 5, Article II of RA 9165.

After trial on the merits, the RTC convicted Guerrero of the crime charged.  Aggrieved, Guerrero appealed to the CA.

The CA affirmed the RTC’s conviction of Guerrero, holding that the prosecution was able to prove the elements of the crime charged.

Hence, Guerrero appealed to the Supreme Court.


ISSUES:
A.       Whether the prosecution proved the guilt of Guerrero beyond reasonable doubt.
          a.       What must be proven for the successful prosecution of the crime of illegal sale of drugs?
          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?

B.      Whether the police authorities complied with the mandatory requirements under Section 21 of RA 9165?


RULING:
A.      
For a successful prosecution for the crime of illegal sale of drugs, the following must be proven: (a) the identities of the buyer, seller, object, and consideration; and (b) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment for it.

The confiscated drug constitutes the very corpus delicti of the offense and the fact of its existence is vital to sustain a judgment of conviction. It is essential, therefore, that the identity and integrity of the seized drugs be established with moral certainty.The prosecution must prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the substance seized from the accused is exactly the same substance offered in court as proof of the crime. Each link to the chain of custody must be accounted for.


In this connection, Section 21, Article II of RA 9165 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR), the applicable law at the time of the commission of the alleged crime, lays down the procedure that police operatives must follow to maintain the integrity of the confiscated drugs used as evidence. The provision requires: (1) that the seized items be inventoried and photographed immediately after seizure or confiscation; (2) that the physical inventory and photographing must be done in the presence of (a) the accused or his/her representative or counsel, (b) an elected public official, (c) a representative from the media, and (d) a representative from the Department of Justice (DOJ), all of whom shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof; and (3) that such conduct of the physical inventory and photograph shall be done at the (a) place where the search warrant is served; (b) nearest police station; or (c) nearest office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable, in case of warrantless seizure.

Section 21 of RA 9165 requires the apprehending team to conduct a physical inventory of the seized items and the photographing of the same immediately after seizure and confiscation. The said inventory must be done in the presence of the aforementioned required witnesses, all of whom shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.

The phrase “immediately after seizure and confiscation” means that the physical inventory and photographing of the drugs were intended by the law to be made immediately after, or at the place of apprehension. It is only when the same is not practicable that the IRR of RA 9165 allows the inventory and photographing to be done as soon as the buy-bust team reaches the nearest police station or the nearest office of the apprehending officer/team. In this connection, this also means that the three required witnesses should already be physically present at the time of apprehension — a requirement that can easily be complied with by the buy-bust team considering that the buy-bust operation is, by its nature, a planned activity

Moreover, while the IRR allows alternative places for the conduct of the inventory and photographing of the seized drugs, the requirement of having the three required witnesses to be physically present at the time or near the place of apprehension is not dispensed with. The reason is simple: it is at the time of arrest — or at the time of the drugs’ “seizure and confiscation” — that the presence of the three witnesses is most needed, as it is their presence at the time of seizure and confiscation that would insulate against the police practice of planting evidence.


B.      
The buy-bust team failed to comply with the mandatory requirements under Section 21.

The records clearly show that the physical inventory and photographing were not made before the three required witnesses. The Certificate of Inventorywas signed only by Americo Flores (Flores), the barangay kagawad, and Dominador Dacanay (Dacanay), the representative from the media. The two witnesses present — a barangay official and a media representative — do not suffice in the face of the explicit requirement of the law that mandates the presence of three witnesses. Neither did the police officers or the prosecution — during the trial — offer any viable or acceptable explanation for their deviation from the law.

Further, nowhere in the records does it show that the apprehending officers have any difficulty contacting a DOJ representative. As a matter of fact, they had sufficient time to find a DOJ representative given that the information regarding the illegal transaction of Guerrero was known to them as early as 4:30 p.m. of August 31, 2013 and the buy-bust allegedly happened at midnight.

It bears emphasis that the presence of the required witnesses at the time of the inventory is mandatory, and that the law imposes the said requirement because their presence serves an essential purpose. In People v. Tomawis (G.R. No. 228890, April 18, 2018), the Court elucidated on the purpose of the law in mandating the presence of the required witnesses as follows:

The presence of the witnesses from the DOJ, media, and from public elective office is necessary to protect against the possibility of planting, contamination, or loss of the seized drug. Using the language of the Court in People v. Mendoza (736 Phil. 749),  without the insulating presence of the representative from the media or the DOJ and any elected public official during the seizure and marking of the drugs, the evils of switching, “planting” or contamination of the evidence that had tainted the buy-busts conducted under the regime of RA No. 6425 (Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972) again reared their ugly heads as to negate the integrity and credibility of the seizure and confiscation of the subject sachet that was evidence of the corpus delicti, and thus adversely affected the trustworthiness of the incrimination of the accused.

The presence of the three witnesses must be secured not only during the inventory but more importantly at the time of the warrantless arrest. It is at this point in which the presence of the three witnesses is most needed, as it is their presence at the time of seizure and confiscation that would belie any doubt as to the source, identity, and integrity of the seized drug. If the buy-bust operation is legitimately conducted, the presence of the insulating witnesses would also controvert the usual defense of frame-up as the witnesses would be able to testify that the buy-bust operation and inventory of the seized drugs were done in their presence in accordance with Section 21 of RA 9165.


The practice of police operatives of not bringing to the intended place of arrest the three witnesses, when they could easily do so — and “calling them in” to the place of inventory to witness the inventory and photographing of the drugs only after the buy-bust operation has already been finished — does not achieve the purpose of the law in having these witnesses prevent or insulate against the planting of drugs.

To restate, the presence of the three witnesses at the time of seizure and confiscation of the drugs must be secured and complied with at the time of the warrantless arrest; such that they are required to be at or near the intended place of the arrest so that they can be ready to witness the inventory and photographing of the seized and confiscated drugs “immediately after seizure and confiscation.”


The prosecution failed to prove justifiable ground for non-compliance.

While there are cases where the Court had ruled that the failure of the apprehending team to strictly comply with the procedure laid out in Section 21 of RA 9165 does not ipso facto render the seizure and custody over the items void and invalid, this is with the caveat that the prosecution still needs to satisfactorily prove that: (a) there is justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved. The Court has repeatedly emphasized that the prosecution should explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses.

In this case, the prosecution neither recognized, much less tried to justify, its deviation from the procedure contained in Section 21, RA 9165. The prosecution did not offer any plausible explanation as to why they did not contact the representative from the DOJ. Breaches of the procedure outlined in Section 21 committed by the police officers, left unacknowledged and unexplained by the State, militate against a finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt against the accused as the integrity and evidentiary value of the corpus delicti had been compromised.

Related Case Briefs:
a.       People v. Tomawis, G.R. No. 228890, April 18, 2018
b.       People v. Supat, G.R. No. 217027, June 6, 2018
c.       Derilo v. People, 784 Phil. 679, 686 (2016)
d.       People v. Alvaro, G.R. No. 225596, January 10, 2018
e.       People v. Viterbo, 793 Phil. 593, 601 (2014)
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THINGS DECIDED:

A.       For a successful prosecution for the crime of illegal sale of drugs, the following must be proven: (a) the identities of the buyer, seller, object, and consideration; and (b) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment for it.

B.       Section 21 of RA 9165 requires the apprehending team to conduct a physical inventory of the seized items and the photographing of the same immediately after seizure and confiscation. The said inventory must be done in the presence of the aforementioned required witnesses, all of whom shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.

C.       The phrase “immediately after seizure and confiscation” means that the physical inventory and photographing of the drugs were intended by the law to be made immediately after, or at the place of apprehension. It is only when the same is not practicable that the IRR of RA 9165 allows the inventory and photographing to be done as soon as the buy-bust team reaches the nearest police station or the nearest office of the apprehending officer/team. In this connection, this also means that the three required witnesses should already be physically present at the time of apprehension — a requirement that can easily be complied with by the buy-bust team considering that the buy-bust operation is, by its nature, a planned activity

D.      It bears emphasis that the presence of the required witnesses at the time of the inventory is mandatory, and that the law imposes the said requirement because their presence serves an essential purpose.

E.       While there are cases where the Court had ruled that the failure of the apprehending team to strictly comply with the procedure laid out in Section 21 of RA 9165 does not ipso facto render the seizure and custody over the items void and invalid, this is with the caveat that the prosecution still needs to satisfactorily prove that: (a) there is justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved. The Court has repeatedly emphasized that the prosecution should explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses.

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