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SECOND DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 237352, October 15, 2018 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, V. MARICAR ISLA Y UMALI, ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

PERLAS-BERNABE, J.:

Assailed in this ordinary appeal[1] is the Decision[2] dated November 3, 2017 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 08847, which affirmed the Decision[3] dated November 17, 2016 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City, Branch 227 (RTC) in Crim. Case No. Q-10-167884, finding accused-appellant Maricar Isla y Umali (Isla) guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Section 5, Article II of Republic Act No. (RA) 9165,[4] otherwise known as the "Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002."

The Facts

This case stemmed from an Information[5] filed before the RTC accusing Isla of violating Section 5, Article II of RA 9165. The prosecution alleged that at around 12:30 in the morning of November 28, 2010, a buy-bust team composed of members of the District Anti-Illegal Drug Special Operations Task Group of the Quezon City Police District conducted a buy-bust operation against Isla, during which a plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance was recovered from her. The buy-bust team, together with Isla, then proceeded to their headquarters, where the seized item was marked, photographed, and inventoried in the presence of Isla and a radio reporter from DWAD 1098 Radyo Ngayon. Thereafter, the seized item was brought to the crime laboratory where, after examination,[6] the contents thereof yielded positive for 0.04 gram of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, a dangerous drug.[7]

In defense, Isla denied the charges against her, claiming instead, that she and her live-in partner were sleeping inside their house when three (3) men in civilian clothes, identifying themselves as police officers, dragged them to the police station wherein they were questioned regarding the identities of a certain "Bhoy Payat" and Beth. When she denied knowing these people, a police officer asked for P200,000.00 for her release, but since they didn't have that much money, she was criminally charged in court.[8]

In a Decision[9] dated November 17, 2016, the RTC found Isla guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged, and accordingly, sentenced her to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine in the amount of P500,000.00.[10] The RTC held that the prosecution had shown that Isla was caught in the act of selling dangerous drugs in the buy-bust operation implemented against her, and that despite certain lapses in compliance with the chain of custody rule, the integrity and evidentiary value of the corpus delicti were nevertheless preserved.[11] Aggrieved, Isla appealed[12] the RTC ruling to the CA.

In a Decision[13] dated November 3, 2017, the CA affirmed the RTC ruling.[14] It held that the prosecution had established all the elements of the crime charged as Isla was caught in flagrante delicto to be selling shabu during a legitimate buy-bust operation, and that the chain of custody rule was substantially complied with.[15]

Hence, this appeal seeking that Isla's conviction be overturned.

The Court's Ruling

The appeal is meritorious.

In cases for Illegal Sale and/or Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs under RA 9165,[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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 ofRA 9165 by RA 10640,[21] a representative from the media AND the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official;[22] 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.[23] 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."[24]

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."[25] This is because "[t]he law has been crafted by Congress as safety precautions to address potential police abuses, especially considering that the penalty imposed may be life imprisonment."[26]

Nonetheless, the Court has recognized that due to varying field conditions, strict compliance with the chain of custody procedure may not always be possible.[27] 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.[28] The foregoing is based on the saving clause found in Section 21 (a),[29] Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 9165, which was later adopted into the text of RA 10640.[30] It should, however, be emphasized that for the saving clause to apply, the prosecution must duly explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses,[31] and that the justifiable ground for non­compliance must be proven as a fact, because the Court cannot presume what these grounds are or that they even exist.[32]

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.[33] Thus, mere statements of unavailability, absent actual serious attempts to contact the required witnesses, are unacceptable as justified grounds for non-compliance.[34] 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.[35]

Notably, the Court, in People v. Miranda,[36] issued a definitive reminder to prosecutors when dealing with drugs cases, imploring that "[since] the [procedural] requirements are clearly set forth in the law, the State retains the positive duty to account for any lapses in the chain of custody of the drugs/items seized from the accused, regardless of whether or not the defense raises the same in the proceedings a quo; otherwise, it risks the possibility of having a conviction overturned on grounds that go into the evidence's integrity and evidentiary value, albeit the same are raised only for the first time on appeal, or even not raised, become apparent upon further review."[37]

In this case, as may be gleaned from the Receipt/Inventory of Property Seized[38] dated November 28, 2010, the inventory of the items purportedly seized from Isla was not conducted in the presence of an elected public official and a DOJ representative, contrary to the afore-described procedure. This was confirmed by no less than the poseur-buyer, Police Officer 3 Rey Valdez (PO3 Valdez) on direct and cross-examination, as follows:

DIRECT EXAMINATION

[Fiscal Mcmc Zulueta (Fiscal Zulueta)]: Although he does not know who signed as the radio reporter, there is here a signature on top of the words Radio Reporter, second line: DWAD AM Radio tapos 1098 KHZ. Now Mr. Witness, if you know why is it that there is just one (1) mandatory witness? How come you do not have witnesses from the DOJ?

[Atty. Donato Mallabo (Atty. Mallabo)]: Best evidence is the document itself.

Fiscal Zulueta: If he knows Your Honor please.

[PO3 Valdez]: Kasi yan lang po ang mga available.

x x x x

Court: The drugs law took effect in 2002 and it's already 2013 and (sic) you have not even complied in these requirements. Put that on record. Okay.[39]

CROSS-EXAMINATION

Atty. Mallabo: Officer Rey Valdez, let's go to your Inventory, the law requires you to prepare the Inventory in the presence of a representative from DOJ, in this case, will you agree with me, there was none?

PO3 Valdez: None, sir.

Atty. Malabo: Not only that, there must be a representative of elected barangay officials, that is mandatory per Sec. 21, [RA] 9165, again, will you agree with me? None?

PO3 Valdez: None, sir.[40]

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, PO3 Valdez did not even attempt to justify the absence of an elected public official and a DOJ representative during the conduct of inventory, and instead, only sheepishly remarked that only the media representative was available at that time. 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 Isla were compromised, which consequently warrants her acquittal.

WHEREFORE, the appeal is GRANTED. The Decision dated November 3, 2017 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 08847 is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, accused-appellant Maricar Isla y Umali is ACQUITTED of the crime charged. The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is ordered to cause her immediate release, unless she is being lawfully held in custody for any other reason.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio (Chairperson), Caguioa, A. Reyes, Jr., and J. Reyes, Jr.,[*] JJ., concur.


[*] Designated Additional Member per Special Order No. 2587 dated August 28, 2018.

[1] See Notice of Appeal dated December 14, 2017; rollo, pp. 19-20.

[2] Id. at 2-18. Penned by Associate Justice Ramon R. Garcia with Associate Justices Edwin D. Sorongon and Maria Filomena D. Singh, concurring.

[3] CA rollo, pp. 57-65. Penned by Presiding Judge Elvira D.C. Panganiban.

[4] Entitled "AN ACT INSTITUTING THE COMPREHENSIVE DANGEROUS DRUGS ACT OF 2002, REPEALING REPUBLIC ACT NO. 6425, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE DANGEROUS DRUGS ACT OF 1972, AS AMENDED, PROVIDING FUNDS THEREFOR, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES," approved on June 7, 2002.

[5] Dated November 30, 2010. Records, pp. 2-3.

[6] See Chemistry Report No. D-128-10 dated November 28, 2010; id. at 16.

[7] See rollo, pp. 5-7.

[8] See id. at 7-8.

[9] CA rollo, pp. 57-65.

[10] Id. at 64.

[11] See id. at 62-64.

[12] See Notice of Appeal dated November 21, 2016; id. at 9-10.

[13] Rollo, pp. 2-18.

[14] Id. at 17.

[15] See id. at 11-17.

[16] The elements of Illegal Sale of Dangerous Drugs under Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 are: (a) the identity of the buyer and the seller, the object, and the consideration; and (b) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment; while the elements of Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs under Section 11, Article II of RA 9165 are: (a) the accused was in possession of an item or object identified as a prohibited drug; (b) such possession was not authorized by law; and (c) the accused freely and consciously possessed the said drug. (See People v. Crispo, G.R. No. 230065, March 14, 2018; People v. Sanchez, G.R. No. 231383, March 7, 2018; People v. Magsano, G.R. No. 231050, February 28, 2018; People v. Manansala, G.R. No. 229092, February 21, 2018; People v. Miranda, G.R. No. 229671, January 31, 2018; and People v. Mamangon, G.R. No. 229102, January 29, 2018; all cases citing People v. Sumili, 753 Phil. 342, 348 [2015] and People v. Bio, 753 Phil. 730, 736 [2015]).

[17] See People v. Crispo, id.; People v. Sanchez, id.; People v. Magsano, id.; People v. Manansala, id.; People v. Miranda, id.; and People v. Mamangon, id. See also People v. Viterbo, 739 Phil. 593, 601 (2014).

[18] See People v. Gamboa, G.R. No. 233702, June 20, 2018, citing People v. Umipang, 686 Phil. 1024, 1039-1040 (2012).

[19] See People v. Año, G.R. No. 230070, March 14, 2018; People v. Crispo, supra note 16; People v. Sanchez, supra note 16; People v. Magsano, supra note 16; People v. Manansala, supra note 16; People v. Miranda, supra note 16; and People v. Mamangon, supra note 16. See also People v. Viterbo, supra note 17.

[20] In this regard, case law recognizes that "[m]arking 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], citing Imson v. People, 669 Phil. 262, 270-271 [2011]. See also People v. Ocfemia, 718 Phil. 330, 348 [2013], citing People v. Resurreccion, 618 Phil. 520, 532 [2009].) 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. (See People v. Tumulak, 791 Phil. 148, 160-161 [2016]; and People v. Rollo, 757 Phil. 346, 357 [2015].)

[21] Entitled "AN ACT TO FURTHER STRENGTHEN THE ANTI-DRUG CAMPAIGN OF THE GOVERNMENT, AMENDING FOR THE PURPOSE SECTION 21 OF REPUBLIC ACT NO. 9165, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE 'COMPREHENSIVE DANGEROUS DRUGS ACT OF 2002,"' approved on July 15, 2014.

[22] Section 21 (1) and (2) Article II of RA 9165 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations.

[23] Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, as amended by RA 10640.

[24] See People v. Miranda, supra note 16. See also People v. Mendoza, 736 Phil. 749, 764 (2014).

[25] See People v. Miranda, id. See also People v. Macapundag, G.R. No. 225965, March 13, 2017, citing People v. Umipang, supra note 18, at 1038.

[26] See People v. Segundo, G.R. No. 205614, July 26, 2017, citing People v. Umipang, id.

[27] See People v. Sanchez, 590 Phil. 214, 234 (2008).

[28] See People v. Almorfe, 631 Phil. 51, 60 (2010).

[29] Section 21 (a), A1ticle II of the IRR of RA 9165 pertinently states: "Provided, further, that non­ compliance with these requirements under justifiable grounds, as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team, shall not render void and invalid such seizures of and custody over said items"

[30] Section 1 of RA 10640 pertinently states: "Provided, finally, That noncompliance of these requirements under justifiable grounds, as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team, shall not render void and invalid such seizures and custody over said items."

[31] People v. Almorfe, supra note 28.

[32] People v. De Guzman, 630 Phil. 637, 649 (2010).

[33] See People v. Manansala, supra note 16.

[34] See People v. Gamboa, supra note 18, citing People v. Umipang, supra note 18, at 1053.

[35] See People v. Crispo, supra note 16.

[36] Supra note 16.

[37] See id.

[38] Records, p. 30.

[39] TSN, November 28, 2013, pp. 14-15.

[40] TSN, February 10, 2014, p. 13.

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