667 Phil. 747

FIRST DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 183676, June 22, 2011 ]

RUEL AMPATUAN "ALIAS RUEL," PETITIONER, VS. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

PEREZ, J.:

For review through this appeal [1] is the Decision [2] dated 25 June 2008 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR.-H.C. No. 00343 which affirmed the conviction of herein accused-appellant RUEL AMPATUAN "Alias Ruel" under Section 4 [3] of Republic Act No. 6425, otherwise known as the "Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972" as amended by Republic Act No. 9165 or the "Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002."  The dispositive portion of the assailed decision reads:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the assailed Judgment of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), 11th Judicial Region, Branch 4, Panabo City, in Criminal Case No. 98-76, finding appellant Ruel Ampatuan alias "Ruel" guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 4 of Republic Act No. 6425 (RA 6425), otherwise known as the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, as amended by BP 179 and further amended by Republic Act No. 7659 (RA 7659) [as further amended by Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002] is hereby AFFIRMED.[4]

The facts as presented by the prosecution before the appellate court, follows:

On 13 October 1997, at around 10:00 a.m., police operatives PO1 Arnel Micabalo (PO1 Micabalo) and PO2 Francisco S. Caslib (PO2 Caslib) together with around fifteen (15) to sixteen (16) police members belonging from the Philippine National Police (PNP) Compound in Tagum City and Panabo Police Station were given a briefing by their team leader, a certain SPO1 Derrayal, regarding a buy-bust operation they would later conduct that day against a certain suspected drug pusher by the name of Totong Ibrahim (Ibrahim) who lives near the Coca-Cola warehouse at Barangay Cagangohan, Panabo City, Davao del Norte. [5]

The buy-bust operation was conducted at around 1:00 p.m. of the same day. Police officers PO1 Micabalo and PO2 Caslib, prepared marked money in the amount of P500.00 [6] and went to the house of Ibrahim posing as buyers.  The rest of the team positioned themselves at the grassy area nearby awaiting for the pre-arranged signal from PO1 Micabalo and PO2 Caslib.  The policemen saw the accused-appellant Ruel Ampatuan (Mr. Ampatuan) and his wife Linda, at the gate of the fence. [7]  They talked to the couple and pretended to buy for a party, marijuana worth P500.00. [8]  The couple told them to wait outside the fence and then went inside the house. Several minutes later, the couple came out with another man identified as Maguid Lumna (Lumna).  Mr. Ampatuan asked for the payment.  The poseur-buyers handed the marked money to Mr. Ampatuan, who in turn handed it to his wife, Linda.  Mr. Ampatuan then showed the police officers the marijuana contained in one pack.  This was placed inside a black bag and given to the poseur-buyers.  The pre-arranged signal of talking aloud was made and the rest of the police officers proceeded to the scene.  The couple and Lumna were arrested and brought to the Panabo Police Station. [9]

On 23 October 1997, the confiscated object was turned over by the Panabo Police Station to Forensic Chemist Noemi Austero (Austero) of the PNP Crime Laboratory of Davao City. [10]  Upon examination, the sample taken yielded positive result for the presence of marijuana. The total weight of the confiscated specimen as testified by Austero was approximately 1.3 kilos. [11]

The version of the defense is:

On 13 October 1997, Mr. Ampatuan, his wife Linda and bodyguard Lumna went to the house of one Arnulfo Morales (Morales) in Tagum City to inquire about reports that the town of Asuncion was impassable because of flooding.  Mr. Ampatuan explained in his testimony that the alleged flooding was the reason given by his debtor Muker Ganda (Muker) to explain the belated payment of a loan. Morales advised them that they should go directly to the house of Muker at Panabo City, Davao del Norte to collect the amount due in his favor. [12]

Upon boarding a bus going to Panabo City, the three met Arlene, the wife of Ibrahim. Arlene, Linda's classmate in elementary, invited them for lunch at her house, which was near Muker's residence. When they reached Muker's house, the latter was not able to pay for his loan, hence they just acceded to the invitation of Arlene.  While inside the house, they saw Ibrahim outside with two companions.  At that point, five police officers entered the premises where Ibrahim was and one of them fired his gun.  Ibrahim and his companions ran, were chased by the police but were not apprehended.  Failing to capture Ibrahim, the police officers then barged back to the house where the couple, Lumna, and Arlene were.  They accused Mr. Ampatuan to be the owner of the black bag containing marijuana samples carried by the police officers. Mr. Ampatuan vehemently denied the ownership of the same and his participation in the sale and/or possession of illegal drugs.  He explained that he and his companions were merely visitors of Arlene.  Nevertheless, the police officers insisted that he owned the samples and the black bag and they were eventually brought to the police station. [13]

An Information was filed against Mr. Ruel Ampatuan, Linda Ampatuan and Maguid Lumna dated 17 March 1998 which reads:

The undersigned accuses RUEL AMPATUAN alias "Ruel," LINDA AMPATUAN alias "LINDA" and MAGUID LUMNA of the crime of violation of Section 4 of Republic Act 6425, otherwise known as the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, as amended by BP 179 and further amended by Section 13 of Republic Act 7659, committed as follows:

That on or about October 13, 1997, in the Municipality of Panabo, Province of Davao, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, conspiring, confederating and mutually helping one another, without being authorized by law, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously sell, deal and distribute two (2) packs of dried Marijuana leaves weighing one (1) kilo and three hundred fifty nine & 3/100 grams. [14]

Upon arraignment, the couple and Lumna entered a plea of not guilty.

On 31 January 2002, the trial court found Mr. Ampatuan guilty but acquitted Linda and Lumna of the offense charged. The dispositive portion reads:

WHEREFORE, the Court finds accused Ruel Ampatuan alias "Ruel" "GUILTY" beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged and hereby sentences him to Reclusion Perpetua and to pay a fine of P500, 000.00 pursuant to law. Accused Linda Ampatuan alias "Linda" and accused Maguid Lumna are ACQUITTED for reasons of reasonable doubt. The two packs of dried marijuana leaves weighing a total of 1.3 kilos are ordered confiscated in favor of the government and to be destroyed in accordance with law.  Costs de oficio. [15]

On appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed with the judgment of the trial court. [16]  The appellate court ruled that the prosecution proved the requisites for illegal sale of prohibited drugs under Section 4 of the Dangerous Drugs Act, to wit: (1) that the accused sold and delivered the prohibited drugs to another, and (2) that the accused knew that what was sold and delivered was a dangerous drug. [17]  It noted that the prosecution presented as evidence in court the corpus delicti.

Hence, this Petition for Review on Certiorari.

In this petition, the accused-appellant Mr. Ampatuan raised two assignments of errors:

First, Whether or not there was a correct application of the law and jurisprudence by the lower courts on the matter; and,

Second, Whether or not the conclusions drawn by the lower courts leaning on the guilt of petitioner beyond reasonable doubt are correct. [18]

The accused-appellant questions the regularity of the performance of duties of the police officers related to his apprehension.  He likewise invokes denial of any knowledge and ownership of the black bag which contained the marijuana samples and asserts that he was mauled by the police officers to admit the ownership thereof and of the purported illegal sale of dangerous drugs.

The Court's Ruling

In a prosecution for illegal sale of dangerous drugs, the following elements must be proven: (1) that the transaction or sale took place; (2) that the corpus delicti or the illicit drug was presented as evidence; and (3) that the buyer and seller were identified. [19]  The presence of these elements is sufficient to support the trial court's finding of appellants' guilt. [20]  What is material is the proof that the transaction or sale actually took place, coupled with the presentation in court of the prohibited or regulated drug. The delivery of the contraband to the poseur-buyer and the receipt of the marked money consummate the buy-bust transaction between the entrapping officers and the accused. [21]  The presentation in court of the corpus delicti -- the body or substance of the crime - establishes the fact that a crime has actually been committed. [22]

As per record of the case, this Court is convinced that there was complete compliance with all the requisites under the law.

The prosecution established that at 1 p.m. of 13 October 1997, a buy-bust operation was conducted by the members of the police force to entrap a drug pusher named Ibrahim.  However, despite his absence in the target area, the entrapment operation ensued within the same place between the police officers who acted as poseur-buyers and the accused-appellant Mr. Ampatuan.  This was shown in the direct testimony [23] of PO2 Caslib:

Q:
So what did you do with the money when they asked for it?
A:
I gave the money personally and then the other person gave to us the marijuana.
Q:
When you said the other person, is that male or female?
A:
He is male, sir.
Q:
You said you handed the money, to whom did you hand the money?
A:
I handed it to Ruel.
Q:
Now tell us, if this Ruel and Linda that you mentioned are in court, will you able to identify them?
A:
Yes, sir.
Q:
Please point to the court this Ruel Ampatuan.
A:
That man, sir.
(Witness is pointing to a person wearing maong pants and maroon long sleeves and when asked, identified himself as Ruel Ampatuan.)
x x x x
Q:
After you handed the money to Ruel Ampatuan, what did you do next, if any?
A:
I handed the money to Ruel and then he gave it to his wife.
Q:
And after he gave the money to his wife, what happened next?
A:
He gave us the item.
Q:
Where did this item come from?
A:
It came from the black bag, from the house of Totong Ibrahim.
Q:
Why, where were you exactly talking with the two accused?
A:
We were in front of the house of Totong Ibrahim.
x x x x
Q:
You mentioned that he got this bag of marijuana, what did the accused do with it? Where did he bring it?
A:
He brought it outside.
Q:
After bringing it outside, what did he do with it next?
A:
He got some marijuana and gave it to us.
Q:
After getting the marijuana, what did you do, if any?
A:
We identified ourselves that we are police operatives conducting buy-bust operation.
Q:
What happened next?
A:
We apprehended the two (2) and then our back-up companions also identified themselves.

We find credit to the straight-forward testimony of PO2 Caslib. Absence of any ill-will on the part of the prosecution witnesses who were the best witnesses in prosecution for illegal sale of drugs, we sustain the findings of the lower courts.

Further, the accused-appellant challenges the regularity of the performance of duties of the police officers in the purported transaction of illegal sale of dangerous drugs.  He argues that the police officers forced him to admit the ownership of the marijuana samples due to their failure to apprehend their real target, Ibrahim.

A buy-bust operation is a form of entrapment whereby ways and means are resorted to for the purpose of trapping and capturing the lawbreakers in the execution of their criminal plan. [24]  In this jurisdiction, the operation is legal and has been proved to be an effective method of apprehending drug peddlers, provided that due regard to constitutional and legal safeguards is undertaken. [25]

In cases involving violations of Dangerous Drugs Act, credence should be given to the narration of the incident by the prosecution witnesses especially when they are police officers who are presumed to have performed their duties in a regular manner, unless there is evidence to the contrary.  Moreover, in the absence of proof of motive to falsely impute such a serious crime against the appellant, the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty, as well as the findings of the trial court on the credibility of witnesses, shall prevail over appellant's self-serving and uncorroborated denial. [26]

Prosecutions involving illegal drugs depend largely on the credibility of the police officers who conducted the buy-bust operation. [27]  It is a fundamental rule that findings of the trial courts, which are factual in nature and which involve credibility, are accorded respect when no glaring errors; gross misapprehension of facts; or speculative, arbitrary, and unsupported conclusions can be gathered from such findings.  The reason for this is that the trial court is in a better position to decide the credibility of witnesses, having heard their testimonies and observed their deportment and manner of testifying during the trial.  The rule finds an even more stringent application where said findings are sustained by the Court of Appeals. [28]

Further, the testimonies of the police officers who conducted the buy-bust are generally accorded full faith and credit, in view of the presumption of regularity in the performance of public duties.  Hence, when lined against an unsubstantiated denial or claim of frame-up, the testimony of the officers who caught the accused red-handed is given more weight and usually prevails. [29] In order to overcome the presumption of regularity, jurisprudence teaches us that there must be clear and convincing evidence that the police officers did not properly perform their duties or that they were prompted with ill-motive. [30]

As to the corpus delicti of the case, Section 21, paragraph 1, Article II of Republic Act No. 9165 provides for the custody and disposition of the confiscated illegal drugs, to wit:

(1) The apprehending team having initial custody and control of the drugs shall, immediately after seizure and confiscation, physically inventory and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof;

This rule was elaborated in Section 21(a), Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of Republic Act No. 9165, viz:

a) The apprehending team having initial custody and control of the drugs shall, immediately after seizure and confiscation, physically inventory and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof: 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. (Emphasis ours) [31]

The following are the links that must be established in the chain of custody in a buy-bust situation: first, the seizure and marking, if practicable, of the illegal drug recovered from the accused by the apprehending officer; second, the turnover of the illegal drug seized by the apprehending officer to the investigating officer; third, the turnover by the investigating officer of the illegal drug to the forensic chemist for laboratory examination; and fourth, the turnover and submission of the marked illegal drug seized from the forensic chemist to the court. [32]

As testified by PO2 Caslib, the marijuana came from the black bag and was handed by Mr. Ampatuan to them. The marijuana was eventually turned over to the police station.  It was positively identified by PO2 Caslib in open court.

Q:
After bringing it outside, what did he do with it next?
A:
He got some marijuana and gave it to us.
Q:
After getting the marijuana, what did you do, if any?
A:
We identified ourselves that we are police operatives conducting buy- bust operation. [33]
x x x x
Q:
I am showing to you a bag here which was earlier marked as Exhibit "F," tell us what relation had this to the bag that you mentioned?
A:
That is the bag, sir.
Q:
How do you know that this is the one?
A:
Because it is somewhat an old bag.
Q:
Were you able to look at the contents of this bag on that day?
A:
Yes, during our arrival at the police station.
Q:
Do you mean to say that that was your first time to look at the contents of this bag?
A:
We saw the content of the bag at the house of Totong Ibrahim and we removed everything at the police station.
Q:
Who opened the bag at the house of Totong Ibrahim?
A:
It was Ruel Ampatuan.
Q:
When Ruel opened this, what was the content?
A:
Marijuana, sir.
Q:
Can you tell us how they were arranged or how they were packed inside?
A:
They were arranged by files, sir.
Q:
How many files if you can remember?
A:
it is wrapped with cellophane.
Q:
I will open this bag and show its contents to you. Tell us what relation has this marijuana to the marijuana which you purchased from the accused?
Q:
This is the one, sir. [34]

The corpus delicti of the crime which was the illicit drug was tested by Forensic Chemist Austero who later testified [35] and confirmed that the sales confiscated during the sale was marijuana.

Q:
Now, you mentioned that you were the one who conducted the examination, tell us what kind of examination was this?
A:
The examination was qualitative, Sir. That is to determine the presence of the sought for substance. So in this case, it is alleged to be marijuana. It is the determination of the presence of marijuana on these specimens submitted.
Q:
Now, briefly, how is your examination done, can you describe it?
A:
A sample is treated with a duquenois-levine reagent and if the purple color appears, it indicates the presence of marijuana plant.
Q:
Now, by the way, how much was the quantity of the marijuana handed to the laboratory?
A:
The first which I marked as "A", the weight is 774.5 grams and the one which I marked as `B," weighed 584.8 grams.
Q:
Now, how much sample from "A" did you use for your examination?
A:
Sir, I did not weigh the samples that were taken from the specimens.
Q:
Now, by the way, what was the result of this examination that you conducted?
A:
Both specimens gave positive result to the test for the presence of marijuana, Sir.
Q:
Did you reduce your report into writing?
A:
Yes, Sir.
Q:
Do you have a copy with you.
A:
Yes, Sir.
Q:
Where in your report [indicates] that the result was positive?
A:
Under findings, Sir.
Q:
How much, by the way, was the total weight of the entire specimens that were handed to your office?
A:
The total weight of the specimens Sir was 1, 359.3 grams.
Q:
In terms of kilos, how will you convert that?
A:
1.3 kilos.
Q:
Now, in this report of yours, there is a signature over the typewritten name on the right side, whose signature is that?
A:
That is my signature, Sir.
Pros. dela Banda:
At this point, Your Honor, may we request that this Chemistry Report No. D-200-97 be marked as Exhibit "J" in accordance with the pre-trial, Your Honor. This is the original also, Your Honor.

Indeed, in every prosecution for illegal sale of prohibited drugs, the presentation in evidence of the seized drug, as an integral part of the corpus delicti, is most material.  Thus, it is vital that the identity of the prohibited drug be proved with moral certainty.  The fact that the substance bought or seized during the buy-bust operation is the same item offered in court as exhibit must also be established with the same degree of certitude.  It is in this respect that the chain of custody requirement performs its function.  It ensures that unnecessary doubts concerning the identity of the evidence are removed. [36]

Petitioner likewise asserts denial of any knowledge relating to the transaction and invoked that he and his companions were merely visitors of Ibrahim's wife.

Denial and alibi are defenses invariably viewed by the Court with disfavor, for they can easily be concocted but difficult to prove, and they are common and standard defense ploys in most prosecutions arising from violations of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act. [37]

Unfortunately, the accused-appellant failed to present any evidence to prove that there was indeed irregularity in the performance of duties or there was an improper motive on the part of the police officers.  His mere testimony alone cannot be considered by this court as a clear and convincing evidence to rule otherwise for the same is self-serving on his part.  This Court finds the version of facts of the prosecution more credible to sustain than the version of facts of the accused-appellant denying any knowledge of the illegal sale.

WHEREFORE, the appeal is DENIED.  The 25 June 2008 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR.-H.C. No. 00343, affirming the Decision of the Regional Trial Court of Panabo City, Branch 4, finding accused-appellant Ruel Ampatuan guilty of violation of Section 4 of Republic Act No. 6425 [38], as amended by Section 13, Republic Act No. 7659, as further amended by Section 5, Article II of Republic Act No. 9165, and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of Reclusion Perpetua and to pay a fine of P500,000.00 is hereby AFFIRMED. Costs against the appellant.

SO ORDERED.

Corona, C.J., (Chairperson), Leonardo-De Castro, Del Castillo, and Mendoza,* JJ., concur.



*  Per Special Order No. 1022.

[1] Via notice of appeal, pursuant to Section 2(c) of Rule 122 of the Rules of Court.

[2] Penned by Associate Justice Jane Aurora C. Lantion with Associate Justices Edgardo A. Camello and Edgardo T. Lloren, concurring.  Rollo, pp. 34-45.

[3] Section 4. Sale, Administration, Delivery, Distribution and Transportation of Prohibited Drugs. The penalty of imprisonment ranging from twelve years and one day to twenty years and a fine ranging from twelve thousand to twenty thousand pesos shall be imposed upon any person who, unless authorized by law, shall sell, administer, deliver, give away to another, distribute, dispatch in transit or transport any prohibited drug, or shall act as a broker in any such transactions. In case of a practitioner, the additional penalty of the revocation of his license to practice his profession shall be imposed. If the victim of the offense is a minor, the maximum of the penalty shall be imposed.

Should a prohibited drug involved in any offense under this Section, be the proximate cause of the death of a victim thereof, the penalty of life imprisonment to death and a fine ranging from twenty thousand to thirty thousand pesos shall be imposed upon the pusher.

[4] Court of Appeals Decision.  Rollo, p. 44.

[5] Testimony of PO2 Francisco S. Caslib. TSN, 8 March 2000, pp. 5-8.

[6] Broken down to five (5) P100.00 bill.

[7] Testimony of Arnel Micabalo.  TSN, 10 March 1999, p. 6.

[8] Decision of the Court of Appeals.  Rollo, p. 36.

[9] Testimony of PO2 Francisco S. Caslib. TSN, 8 March 2000, pp. 9-13.

[10] Testimony of Forensic Chemist Noemi Austero.  TSN, 19 January 2000, pp. 5-19.

[11] Id. at 8-10.

[12] Testimony of Ruel Ampatuan.  TSN, 15 August 2001, pp. 4-6.

[13] Decision of the Court of Appeals.  Rollo, pp. 37-38.

[14] Records, p. 1.

[15] Id. at 114-115.

[16] Decision of the Court of Appeals. Rollo, p. 44.

[17] Id. at 41.

[18] Petition.  Id. at 21.

[19] People v. Orteza, G.R. No. 173051, 31 July 2007, 528 SCRA 750, 757 citing People v. Bandang, G.R. No. 151314, 3 June 2004, 430 SCRA 570, 579.

[20] People v. Miranda, G.R. No. 174773, 2 October 2007, 534 SCRA 552, 567.

[21] People v. Nazareno, G.R. No. 174771, 11 September 2007, 532 SCRA 630, 636-637 citing People v. Orteza, supra note 16 at 758 citing further People v. Zeng Hua Dian, G.R. No. 145348, 14 June 2004, 432 SCRA 25, 34.

[22] People v. Gutierrez, G.R. No. 179213, 3 September 2009, 598 SCRA 92, 101 citing People v. Del Mundo, G.R. No. 169141, 6 December 2006, 510 SCRA 554, 562.

[23] Direct testimony of PO2 Francisco S. Caslib.  TSN, 8 March 2000, pp. 11-13.

[24] People v. De Leon, G.R. No. 186471, 25 January 2010, 611 SCRA 118, 135; Cruz v. People, G.R. No. 164580, 6 February 2009, 578 SCRA 147, 152.

[25] People v. De Leon, id.; People v. Herrera, G.R. No. 93728, 21 August 1995, 247 SCRA 433, 439.

[26] People v. Llamado, G.R. No. 185278, 13 March 2009, 581 SCRA 544, 552

[27] People v. Villamin, G.R. No. 175590, 9 February 2010, 612 SCRA 91, 106; People v. Macatingag, G.R. No. 181037, 19 January 2009, 576 SCRA 354, 366 citing People v. Hajili, 447 Phil. 283, 295-296 (2003).

[28] People v. Villamin, id. at 106-107 citing People v. Macatingan, id. at 366 citing further People v. Bayani, G.R. No. 179150, 17 June 2008, 554 SCRA 741, 752-753.

[29] People v. Roa, G.R. No. 186134, 6 May 2010, 620 SCRA 359, 367-368.

[30] Id. at 368 citing People v. Bongalon, 425 Phil. 96, 116 (2002).

[31] People v. Presas, G.R. No. 182525, 2 March 2011.

[32] People v. Magpayo, G.R. No. 187069, 20 October 2010, 634 SCRA 441, 451 citing People v. Kamad, G.R. No. 174198, 19 January 2010, 610 SCRA 295, 307-308.

[33] Testimony of PO2 Arnel Micabalo.  TSN, 8 March 2000, p. 12.

[34] Id. at 13-14.

[35] Direct Testimony of Forensic Chemist Noemi Austero. TSN, 19 January 2000, pp. 8-9.

[36] People v. Quiamanlon, G.R. No. 191198, 26 January 2011.

[37]  People v. De Leon, supra note 21 at 136; People v. Isnani, G.R. No. 133006, 9 June 2004, 431 SCRA 439, 454 citing People v. Ganenas, 417 Phil. 53, 68 (2001) citing further People v. Uy, 392 Phil. 773, 788 (2000).

[38] Section 4, Article II of Republic Act No. 6425 or the "THE DANGEROUS DRUGS ACT OF 1972" provides in part:

The penalty of reclusion perpetua to death and a fine ranging from five hundred thousand pesos to ten million pesos shall be imposed upon any person who, unless authorized by law, shall sell, x x x, any prohibited drug, or shall act as a broker in any such transactions. x x x.



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