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SECOND DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 238594, November 05, 2018 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. JOEY REYES Y LAGMAN, ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

PERLAS-BERNABE, J.:

Assailed in this ordinary appeal[1] is the Decision[2] dated August 25, 2016 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07352, which affirmed the Joint Decision[3] dated March 10, 2015 of the Regional Trial Court of Caloocan City, Branch 127 (RTC) in Criminal Case Nos. C-89170 and C-89171, finding accused-appellant Joey Reyes y Lagman (Reyes) guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Sections 5 and 11, 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 two (2) Informations[5] filed before the RTC accusing Reyes of the crimes of Illegal Sale and Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs. The prosecution alleged that in the evening of December 20, 2012, members of the Northern Police District Anti-Illegal Drug Special Operation Task Group successfully conducted a buy-bust operation against Reyes, during which one (1) plastic sachet containing 0.07 gram of white crystalline substance was recovered from him. During the search incidental to Reyes' arrest, eight (8) more plastic sachets containing an aggregate weight of 0.43 gram were discovered in his possession. After marking the seized items at the place of arrest, the buy-bust team, together with Reyes, went to their headquarters where the inventory and photography were witnessed by a media representative. Thereafter, the seized items were brought to the crime laboratory where, after examination,[6] the contents thereof yielded positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, a dangerous drug.[7]

In defense, Reyes denied the charges against him, claiming instead, that he was just loitering outside his house when he saw policemen running after a suspected drug pusher. When said drug pusher was arrested, Reyes was likewise arrested by the policemen and taken to their headquarters where he was forced to admit ownership of the drugs found from the aforesaid drug pusher.[8]

In a Joint Decision[9] dated March 10, 2015, the RTC found Reyes guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crimes charged, and accordingly, sentenced him as follows: (a) in Criminal Case No. C-89170, he was sentenced to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine in the amount of P500,000.00; and (b) in Criminal Case No. C-89171, he was sentenced to suffer the penalty of imprisonment for an indeterminate period of twelve (12) years, and one (1) day, as minimum, to seventeen (17) years and eight (8) months, as maximum, and to pay a fine in the amount of P300,000.00.[10] The RTC found that through the positive testimonies of the members of the buy-bust team, the prosecution had established that Reyes indeed sold a plastic sachet containing shabu to the poseur-buyer, and that after his arrest, more plastic sachets also containing shabu were found in his possession. It further found that the buy-bust team substantially complied with the chain of custody rule, thereby preserving the integrity and evidentiary value of the drugs seized from Reyes.[11] Aggrieved, Reyes appealed[12] to the CA.

In a Decision[13] dated August 25, 2016, the CA affirmed in toto the RTC ruling.[14] It held that the prosecution had established all the elements of the crimes charged, and that there was substantial compliance with the chain of custody rule.[15]

Hence, this appeal seeking that Reyes' 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] In this regard, case law recognizes that "marking upon immediate confiscation contemplates even marking at the nearest police station or office of the apprehending team."[21] 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.[22]

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,[23] "a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official";[24] 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 or the media."[25] 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."[26]

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."[27] 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."[28]

Nonetheless, the Court has recognized that due to varying field conditions, strict compliance with the chain of custody procedure may not always be possible.[29] 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.[30] The foregoing is based on the saving clause found in Section 21 (a),[31] Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 9165, which was later adopted into the text of RA 10640.[32] It should, however, be emphasized that for the saving clause to apply, the prosecution must duly explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses,[33] 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.[34]

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.[35] Thus, mere statements of unavailability, absent actual serious attempts to contact the required witnesses, are unacceptable as justified grounds for non-compliance.[36] 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.[37]

Notably, the Court, in People v. Miranda,[38] issued a definitive reminder to prosecutors when dealing with drugs cases. It implored 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."[39]

In this case, it is explicitly stated in the Inventory of Confiscated/Seized Drugs[40] dated December 20, 2012 that no elected public official and DOJ representative were available to witness the concurrent conduct of inventory and photography of the items purportedly seized from Reyes. In this regard, it is noticeable from the testimonies of the poseur-buyer, Police Officer 2 John Rey Catinan (PO2 Catinan), and the back-up arresting officer, Police Officer 1 Nepthalie Buensuceso (PO1 Buensuceso), that the absence of the aforesaid required witnesses was not acknowledged by the prosecution, to wit:

Direct Examination of PO2 Catinan


[Assistant City Prosecutor Albert T. Cansino (Pros. Cansino)]: So after the turn-over to the investigator, what happened to this case?
[PO2 Catinan]: Our investigator called for [a] media representative in the person of Ka Maeng Santos in order to conduct inventory with the picture taking, sir.

Q: Do you have proof that there was an inventory and taking of photographs?
A: There was, sir.

Q: I am showing to you Inventory of Confiscated/Seized Drugs previously marked as Exhibit "G" and the photographs previously marked as Exhibit "I" and Exhibit "I-1". What relation has this [sic] documents and photographs to those taken during the investigation?
A: These are the one [sic], sir.

COURT INTERPRETER:

Witness identifying Exhibits "G", "I", and "I-1".

[Pros Cansino]: After the inventory and the taking of the photographs, what happened next?

[PO2 Catinan]: Our investigator requested for [a] crime laboratory examination on the pieces of evidence, sir.[41]

Direct Examination of PO1 Buensuceso


[Pros. Cansino]: You also said that the investigator called up the presence of witnesses and conducted an inventory, do you have proof that inventory was conducted in this case?

[PO1 Buensuceso]: Yes, sir.

Q: What is that proof Mr. Witness?
A: We accomplished the inventory of the seized drug evidences and we also signed the same document sir during that day, sir.

Q: I'm showing to you inventory of confiscated and seized drugs dated December 20, 2012 previously marked Exhibit "G", what relation has this document to the inventory you said you accomplished?
A: This is the same document that we have accomplished, the inventory of confiscated and/or seized drug bearing our signatures, the signature of PO2 Catinan and my signature as the arresting officer and also bearing the signature of the media representative Ka Maeng Santos, sir.

x x x x

Q: You said that the other two signatures aside from your signature are the signatures of PO2 Catinan and Maeng Santos, media representative, how do you know that these are their signatures?
A: Sir, because I am present during their signing of these documents, sir.

Q: After the inventory conducted in this case, what happened next, Mr. Witness?
A: After the inventory that we did in front of the media representative and in front of the accused, as far as I can remember, our duty investigator SPO1 Fidel Cabinta prepared the necessary documents for crime laboratory and our duty investigator SPO1 Cabinta brought the suspect together with the seized drug evidence to the PNP Crime laboratory office located at Valenzuela City.

x x x x[42]


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, the prosecution only endeavored to prove that there was indeed a conduct of inventory and photography, and then moved on to another matter. Notably, the absence of an elected public official and a DOJ representative during such conduct was never acknowledged, much less justified. 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 items purportedly seized from Reyes were compromised, which consequently warrants his acquittal.

WHEREFORE, the appeal is GRANTED. The Decision dated August 25, 2016 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07352 is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, accused-appellant Joey Reyes y Lagman is ACQUITTED of the crimes charged. The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is ordered to cause his immediate release, unless he is being lawfully held in custody for any other reason.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio, (Chairperson), Caguioa, and A. Reyes, Jr., JJ., concur.
J. Reyes, Jr., J.,* on official leave.



* Designated Additional Member per Special Order No. 2587 dated August 28, 2018; on official leave.

[1] See Notice of Appeal dated September 21, 2016; rollo, pp. 16-17.

[2] Id. at 2-15. Penned by Associate Justice Socorro B. Inting with Associate Justices Remedios A. Salazar-Fernando and Priscilla J. Baltazar-Padilla, concurring.

[3] CA rollo, pp. 21-39-A. Penned by Presiding Judge Victoriano B. Cabanos.

[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] The Information dated December 27, 2012 in Criminal Case No. C-89170 was for Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 (Illegal Sale of Dangerous Drugs); records, pp. 2-3; while the Information dated December 27, 2012 in Criminal Case No. C-89171 was for Section 11, Article II of RA 9165 (Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs); records, pp. 27-28.

[6] See Physical Science Report No. D-421-12 dated December 21, 2012; records, p. 20.

[7] Rollo, pp. 4-7.

[8] Id. at 8.

[9] CA rollo, pp. 21-39-A.

[10] Id. at 39.

[11] Id. at 34-39.

[12] See Notice of Appeal dated March 11, 2015; id. at 40.

[13] Rollo, pp. 2-15.

[14] Id. at 14.

[15] See id. at 11-15.

[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 "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], citing Imson v. People, 669 Phil. 262, 270-271 [2011]. See also People v. Ocfemia, 718 Phil. 330, 348 [2013], citing People v. Resurrection, 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] 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. Resurrection, 618 Phil. 520, 532 (2009).

[22] See People v. Tumulak, 791 Phil. 148, 160-161 (2016); and People v. Rollo, 757 Phil. 346, 357 (2015).

[23] 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.

[24] Section 21 (1) and (2) Article II of RA 9165 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations; emphasis and underscoring supplied.

[25] Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, as amended by RA 10640; emphasis and underscoring supplied.

[26] See People v. Bangalan, G.R. No. 232249, September 3, 2018, citing People v. Miranda, supra note 16. See also People v. Mendoza, 736 Phil. 749, 764 (2014).

[27] 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.

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

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

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

[31] Section 21 (a), Article 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"

[32] 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."

[33] People v. Almorfe, supra note 30.

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

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

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

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

[38] Supra note 16.

[39] See id.

[40] Records, p. 15.

[41] TSN, August 6, 2013, pp. 20-21.

[42] TSN, October 21, 2013, pp. 12-14.

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