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688 Phil. 458

FIRST DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 174369, June 20, 2012 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. ZAFRA MARAORAO Y MACABALANG, ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

VILLARAMA, JR., J.:

Before us is an appeal from the March 1, 2006 Decision[1] of the Court of Appeals (CA), which affirmed the Decision[2] of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Manila, Branch 35, convicting appellant Zafra Maraorao y Macabalang of violation of Section 16, Article III of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 6425, otherwise known as The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, as amended.

Appellant was charged under an Information[3] dated January 4, 2001 filed before the RTC of Manila as follows:

That on or about November 30, 2000, in the City of Manila, Philippines, the said accused, without being authorized by law to possess or use regulated drug, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and knowingly have in his possession and under his custody and control one (1) transparent plastic sachet containing ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED EIGHTY POINT ZERO EIGHT ONE (1,280.081) grams of white crystalline substance known as “shabu” containing methylamphetamine hydrochloride, a regulated drug, without the corresponding license or prescription thereof.

Contrary to law.

On March 19, 2001, appellant, assisted by counsel, pleaded not guilty to the offense charged against him.[4]  Trial on the merits ensued.

For the prosecution, PO3 Manuel Vigilla testified that on November 29, 2000, they received reliable information at Police Station No. 8 of the Western Police District (WPD) that an undetermined amount of shabu will be delivered inside the Islamic Center in Quiapo in the early morning of the following day. On November 30, 2000, at around 7:00 a.m., he and PO2 Mamelito Abella, PO1 Joseph dela Cruz, and SPO1 Norman Gamit went to the Islamic Center. While walking along Rawatun Street in Quiapo, they saw two men talking to each other. Upon noticing them, one ran away. PO2 Abella and PO1 Dela Cruz chased the man but failed to apprehend him.[5]

Meanwhile, the man who was left behind dropped a maroon bag on the pavement. He was about to run when PO3 Vigilla held him, while SPO1 Gamit picked up the maroon bag. The man was later identified as appellant Zafra Maraorao y Macabalang. The police examined the contents of the bag and saw a transparent plastic bag containing white crystalline substance, which they suspected to be shabu. At the police station, the investigator marked the plastic sachet “ZM-1” in the presence of the police officers.[6]

The specimen was then forwarded to the PNP Crime Laboratory for laboratory chemical analysis. When examined by Forensic Chemist P/Insp. Miladenia O. Tapan, the 1,280.081 grams of white crystalline substance gave a positive result to the test for methylamphetamine hydrochloride, a regulated drug. Her findings are contained in Chemistry Report No. D-1121-00.[7]

In his defense, appellant testified that on November 30, 2000, at around 7:00 a.m., he was going to the place of his uncle, Abdul Gani, at the Islamic Center to get a letter from his mother. He went there early because he had to report for work at the Port Area in Manila at 8:00 a.m.  On his way, an unidentified man carrying a bag asked him about a house number which he did not know.  He stopped walking to talk to the man, who placed his bag down and asked him again. When they turned around, they saw four men in civilian attire walking briskly. He only found out that they were police officers when they chased the man he was talking to. As the man ran away, the man dropped his bag.  Appellant averred that he did not run because he was not aware of what was inside the bag.[8]

Appellant further narrated that the police arrested him and asked who the owner of the bag was.  He replied that it did not belong to him but to the man who ran away. They made him board a bus-type vehicle and brought him to the police station in Sta. Mesa, Manila where he was referred to a desk sergeant.  The desk sergeant asked him whether the bag was recovered from him, and he replied that he had no knowledge about that bag.  He was not assisted by counsel during the investigation. He was also incarcerated in a small cell for about ten days before he was brought to Manila City Jail.  At the Office of the City Prosecutor, he met his lawyer for the first time.[9]

On September 25, 2001, the trial court rendered a decision, the fallo of which reads:

WHEREFORE, judgment is rendered pronouncing accused ZAFRA MARAORAO y MACABALANG guilty beyond reasonable doubt of possession of 1,280.081 grams of methylamphetamine hydrochloride without license or prescription, penalized under Section 16 in relation to Section 20 of Republic Act No. 6425, as amended, and sentencing said accused to reclusion perpetua and to pay a fine of P5,000,000.00, plus the costs.

In the service of his sentence, the full time during which the accused has been under preventive imprisonment should be credited in his favor provided that he had agreed voluntarily in writing to abide with the same disciplinary rules imposed on convicted prisoner. Otherwise, he should be credited with four-fifths (4/5) only of the time he had been under preventive imprisonment.

Exhibit B, which consists of 1,280.081 grams of methylamphetamine hydrochloride, is confiscated and forfeited in favor of the Government. Within ten (10) days following the promulgation of this judgment, the Branch Clerk of this Court, is ordered to turn over, under proper receipt, the regulated drug involved in this case to the Dangerous Drugs Custodian, National Bureau of Investigation, as appointed by the Dangerous Drugs Board, for appropriate disposition.

SO ORDERED.[10]

Aggrieved, appellant filed a Notice of Appeal.[11]  The entire records of the case were elevated to this Court.  Pursuant to our Decision in People v. Mateo,[12] however, the case was transferred to the CA for appropriate action and disposition.

At the CA, appellant raised the following assignment of errors:

I

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN GIVING CREDENCE TO THE FABRICATED AND COACHED TESTIMONY OF THE STAR PROSECUTION WITNESS.

II

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN DISREGARDING THE ACCUSED'S DEFENSE OF DENIAL.[13]

On March 1, 2006, the CA rendered the assailed Decision, to wit:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the appeal is DENIED for lack of merit. The Decision dated 25 September 2001 of the Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 35 in Crim. Case No. 01-188945 is hereby AFFIRMED. Costs against appellant.

SO ORDERED.[14]

In affirming the RTC Decision, the CA held that there was no showing that the trial court overlooked, misunderstood or misapplied a fact or circumstance of weight and substance which would have affected the case. It gave credence to the testimony of PO3 Vigilla and found appellant's defense of denial inherently weak.  Furthermore, the CA held that appellant was lawfully searched as a consequence of his valid warrantless arrest.

Hence, this present recourse.

In his Supplemental Brief,[15] appellant stresses that PO3 Vigilla testified that when they first saw appellant, he was talking with a certain person.  It was appellant’s companion who scampered away upon seeing the police.  PO3 Vigilla further testified that appellant tried to flee but they were able to arrest him before he could do so.  Appellant argues that his alleged attempt to flee does not constitute a crime that should have prompted the police to arrest him. Since his arrest was illegal, he contends that the subsequent search made by the police was likewise illegal, and the shabu supposedly recovered from him is inadmissible in evidence.

The appeal is meritorious.

We have repeatedly held that the trial court’s evaluation of the credibility of witnesses and their testimonies is entitled to great respect and will not be disturbed on appeal.  However, this is not a hard and fast rule. We have reviewed such factual findings when there is a showing that the trial judge overlooked, misunderstood, or misapplied some fact or circumstance of weight and substance that would have affected the case.[16]

It is well-settled that an appeal in a criminal case opens the whole case for review.  This Court is clothed with ample authority to review matters, even those not raised on appeal, if we find them necessary in arriving at a just disposition of the case.  Every circumstance in favor of the accused shall be considered. This is in keeping with the constitutional mandate that every accused shall be presumed innocent unless his guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt.[17]

Now, in order to convict appellant for illegal possession of a dangerous drug, or the shabu in this case, the prosecution evidence must prove beyond reasonable doubt the following elements: (1) the appellant was in possession of an item or object that is identified to be a prohibited or dangerous drug; (2) such possession was not authorized by law; and (3) the appellant freely and consciously possessed the drug.[18]  In this case, the fact of possession by appellant of the bag containing the shabu was not established in the first place.

A careful perusal of the testimony of PO3 Vigilla reveals a glaring discrepancy which both the trial and the appellate courts overlooked.  In their Joint Affidavit,[19] arresting officers PO3 Vigilla, PO2 Abella, PO1 dela Cruz and SPO1 Gamit stated that they spotted two unidentified persons standing and seemingly conversing a few meters ahead of them. “However, when one of them noticed our presence, he hastily r[a]n away heading towards the Muslim Center leaving behind the other person and a maroon colored bag with ‘Adidas’ marking in the pavement.” In other words, the maroon bag was left behind by the man who ran away.  But at the trial, PO3 Vigilla testified during direct examination that they spotted two persons talking to each other, and upon noticing them, “one of them scampered away and was chased by my companions while the other one dropped a bag, sir.”[20]  Presumably, under his testimony, the bag was now held by the one who did not run away.  Later, in another part of his testimony, he again changed this material fact.  When he was asked by Prosecutor Senados as to who between the two persons they saw talking to each other ran away, PO3 Vigilla categorically answered, “[t]he one who is holding a bag, sir.”[21]  Such material inconsistency leaves much to be desired about the credibility of the prosecution’s principal witness and casts reasonable doubt as to appellant’s guilt for it renders questionable whether he in fact held the bag with intention to possess it and its contents.

In every criminal prosecution, the State must prove beyond reasonable doubt all the elements of the crime charged and the complicity or participation of the accused.[22]  While a lone witness’ testimony is sufficient to convict an accused in certain instances, the testimony must be clear, consistent, and credible—qualities we cannot ascribe to this case.  Jurisprudence is consistent that for testimonial evidence to be believed, it must both come from a credible witness and be credible in itself – tested by human experience, observation, common knowledge and accepted conduct that has evolved through the years.[23] Clearly from the foregoing, the prosecution failed to establish by proof beyond reasonable doubt that appellant was indeed in possession of shabu, and that he freely and consciously possessed the same.

The presumption of innocence of an accused in a criminal case is a basic constitutional principle, fleshed out by procedural rules which place on the prosecution the burden of proving that an accused is guilty of the offense charged by proof beyond reasonable doubt.  Corollary thereto, conviction must rest on the strength of the prosecution’s evidence and not on the weakness of the defense.[24]  In this case, the prosecution’s evidence failed to overcome the presumption of innocence, and thus, appellant is entitled to an acquittal.

Indeed, suspicion no matter how strong must never sway judgment. Where there is reasonable doubt, the accused must be acquitted even though their innocence may not have been established.  The Constitution presumes a person innocent until proven guilty by proof beyond reasonable doubt.  When guilt is not proven with moral certainty, it has been our policy of long standing that the presumption of innocence must be favored, and exoneration granted as a matter of right.[25]

WHEREFORE, the Decision dated March 1, 2006 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 01600 is REVERSED and SET ASIDE, and appellant Zafra Maraorao y Macabalang is hereby ACQUITTED of the offense charged.

The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is directed to cause the immediate release of appellant, unless the latter is being lawfully held for other cause/s; and to inform the Court of the date of his release, or the reasons for his confinement, within five (5) days from notice.

With costs de oficio.

SO ORDERED.

Leonardo-De Castro,* (Acting Chairperson), Del Castillo, Perez,** and Perlas-Bernabe,*** JJ., concur.



* Designated Acting Chairperson of the First Division per Special Order No. 1226 dated May 30, 2012.

** Designated Additional Member of the First Division per Raffle dated June 11, 2012.

*** Designated Acting Member of the First Division per Special Order No. 1227 dated May 30, 2012.

[1] Rollo, pp. 3-30. Penned by Associate Justice Celia C. Librea-Leagogo with Associate Justices Renato C. Dacudao and Lucas P. Bersamin (now a member of this Court) concurring. The assailed decision was rendered in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 01600.

[2] CA rollo, pp. 10-15. Penned by Judge Ramon P. Makasiar.

[3] Records, pp. 1-2.

[4] Id. at 29.

[5] TSN, April 26, 2001, pp. 5-9.

[6] Id. at 9-18.

[7] Records, p. 11.

[8] TSN, July 25, 2001, pp. 3-8.

[9] Id. at 9-20.

[10] CA rollo, pp. 14-15.

[11] Id. at 16.

[12] G.R. Nos. 147678-87, July 7, 2004, 433 SCRA 640.

[13] CA rollo, p. 45.

[14] Rollo, p. 28.

[15] Id. at 45-49.

[16] See Valdez v. People, G.R. No. 170180, November 23, 2007, 538 SCRA 611, 621-622; People v. Chua, G.R. Nos. 136066-67, February 4, 2003, 396 SCRA 657, 664.

[17] People v. Chua, id.

[18] People v. Naquita, G.R. No. 180511, July 28, 2008, 560 SCRA 430, 451.

[19] Records, p. 9.

[20] TSN, April 26, 2001, p. 8. Emphasis supplied.

[21] Id. at 9.

[22] People v. Limpangog, 444 Phil. 691, 693 (2003).

[23] People v. Mirandilla, Jr., G.R. No. 186417, July 27, 2011, 654 SCRA 761, 769.

[24] People v. Lorenzo, G.R. No. 184760, April 23, 2010, 619 SCRA 389, 399.

[25]  Fernandez v. People, G.R. No. 138503, September 28, 2000, 341 SCRA 277, 299.

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