SPECIAL FIRST DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 226485. June 06, 2018 ]
THE PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, V. BERNIE DELOCIEMBRE Y ANDALES AND DHATS ADAM Y DANGA, ACCUSED-APPELLANTS.
R E S O L U T I O N
Before the Court is a Motion for Reconsideration1 filed by accused-appellants Bernie Delociembre y Andales (Bernie) and Dhats Adam y Danga (Dhats; collectively, accused-appellants) assailing the Resolution2 dated April 17, 2017 of the Court, which affirmed the Decision3 dated March 31, 2016 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07231 finding accused-appellants 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 instant case stemmed from an Information5 filed before the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City, Branch 78 (RTC), docketed as Crim. Case No. Q-10-163376, charging accused-appellants of the crime of Illegal Sale of Dangerous Drugs, the accusatory portion of which states:
That on or about the 7th day of April, 2010, in Quezon City, Philippines, the said accused, conspiring, confederating and mutually helping each other, without lawful authority did then and there willfully and unlawfully sell, trade, administer, dispense, deliver, give away to another, distribute, dispatch in transit or transport, or act as broker in the said transaction, a dangerous drug, to wit: Five (5) pieces of transparent heat sealed plastic sachet marked as "EXH-A-1 MPA 4/7/2010, EXH-A-2 MPA 4/7/2010, EXH-A-3 MPA 4/7/2010, EXH-A-4 MPA 4/7/2010["] and "EXH-A-5 MPA 4/7/2010" with twenty one point forty one twenty nine (21.4129) grams of white crystalline substance containing Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride also known as "shabu", a dangerous drug.
CONTRARY TO LAW.6
The prosecution alleged that on April 7, 2010, a buy-bust team composed of Senior Officer II Christopher Macairap7 (SOII Macairap), Inspector Officer I Junef Avenido (IO1 Avenido), and IO1 Renata Reyes (IO1 Reyes) was organized to conduct an entrapment operation against Bernie, alias "Axe," who was reportedly "operating" within the area of Quezon City.8 Accordingly, SOII Macairap instructed their informant to purchase twenty-five (25) grams of shabu worth P150,000.00 from Bernie and arrange a meeting with him, to which the latter agreed. Thus, at around 2:30 in the afternoon, the buy-bust team, together with the informant, proceeded to the target area in NIA Road, Quezon City. Upon arriving, the informant introduced IO1 Avenido, the designated poseur-buyer, to Bernie and his companion, Dhats. Dhats then handed over a folded cardboard paper with a Lotto 6/49 logo containing a white crystalline substance to IO1 Avenido, who, in turn, paid Bernie using the marked money. As Bernie was about to count the money, IO1 Avenido executed the pre-arranged signal by taking off his cap, and consequently, accused-appellants were apprehended. Shortly after, the team left the area and proceeded to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) office. Thereat, the requisite marking and inventory were done in the presence of Barangay Kagawad Jose Ruiz, Jr. and accused-appellants, while SOII Macairap took pictures of the same. Subsequently, IO1 Avenido delivered the seized drugs to the PDEA laboratory where they were received by Forensic Chemical Officer Jappeth Santiago (FCO Santiago) who confirmed that they tested positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride and meferonex, a dangerous drug. Consequently, FCO Santiago turned over the said items to the custody of the trial court.9
For their part, accused-appellants raised the defenses of denial and alibi. Bernie claimed that at around twelve (12) o'clock in the afternoon of April 7, 2010, while he was at home preparing his son for school, he noticed that PDEA agents Renato Reyes and Roy Allan, the alleged bosses of his brother "Axe," were knocking at the latter's door. When asked about the whereabouts of "Axe," Bernie told them that "Axe" left for Aklan to visit his wife. Subsequently, they left but came back shortly to invite Bernie to the PDEA office. After joining the agents in the PDEA office, Bernie was again asked of "Axe's" whereabouts. In the interim, he noticed some illegal drugs placed on the table and saw Dhats for the first time. After being questioned, Bernie was purportedly taken to the city hall for inquest.10
Meanwhile, Dhats maintained that at around twelve (12) o'clock in the afternoon of even date, he and his wife were having lunch at their house when six (6) armed men suddenly arrived in search of "Axe," whom he allegedly knew by name. He was then handcuffed and brought to the PDEA office where he was joined by Bernie.(awÞhi( Thereafter, he was taken to Camp Crame for medical examination. According to Dhats, IO1 Avenido demanded the amount of P100,000.00 for his release, but since he could not produce the same, he was brought to the city hall for inquest.11
The RTC Ruling
In a Judgment12 dated December 12, 2014, the RTC found accused appellants guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Section 5, Article II of RA 9165, sentencing each of them to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine of P500,000.00.13 It held that the prosecution proved all the elements of the crime charged, as it was able to show that: (a) an illegal sale of shabu actually took place during a valid buy-bust operation; (b) accused-appellants were positively identified in open court as the malefactors; and (c) the forensic examination of the seized drugs yielded positive results for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride and meferonex. Moreover, it ruled that accused-appellants' unsubstantiated defense of denial and alibi could not prevail over the positive testimonies of the prosecution witnesses who had no ill-motive to testify against them.14
Aggrieved, accused-appellants appealed15 to the CA.
The CA Ruling
In a Decision16 dated March 31, 2016, the CA affirmed in toto the Judgment of the RTC.17 It found, among others, that while certain requirements under Section 21 of RA 9165 were not complied with, the prosecution nevertheless established an unbroken chain of custody of the seized drugs, which were preserved from the time of seizure to receipt by the forensic laboratory to safekeeping up to presentation in court. Besides, the arresting officers provided justifiable reasons why the marking could not be done at the place of arrest, i.e. a Muslim compound, since the same was – at that time – already getting crowded, and because one of the suspects allegedly belonged to a Muslim clan. Further, the absence of a DOJ representative had already become a trivial matter, considering that there was an elected local official present during the inventory.18
Undaunted, accused-appellants elevated19 the matter to the Court.
The Proceedings Before the Court
In a Resolution20 dated April 17, 2017, the Court upheld the CA's conviction of accused-appellants finding them guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Section 5, Article II of RA 9165.21
Dissatisfied, accused-appellants moved for reconsideration,22 arguing, among others, that the police officers failed to comply with the mandatory procedures in the handling and disposition of the seized drugs as provided under Section 21, Article II of RA 9165.23
The Court’s Ruling
The Court grants the motion for reconsideration.1âшphi1
At the outs.et, it must be stressed that an appeal in criminal cases opens the entire case for review and it is the duty of the reviewing tribunal to correct, cite, and appreciate errors in the appealed judgment whether they are assigned or unassigned.24 "The appeal confers the appellate court full jurisdiction over the case and renders such court competent to examine the records, revise the judgment appealed from, increase the penalty, and cite the proper provision of the penal law."25
In this case, accused-appellants were charged with the crime of Illegal Sale of Dangerous Drugs, defined and penalized under Section 5, Article II of RA 9165. Case law states that in every prosecution for Illegal Sale of Dangerous Drugs, the following elements must be proven with moral certainty: (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.26 Moreover, it is likewise essential that the identity of the prohibited drugs be established beyond reasonable doubt, considering that the prohibited drug itself forms an integral part of the corpus delicti of the crime. The prosecution has to show an unbroken chain of custody over the dangerous drugs so as to obviate any unnecessary doubts on the identity of the dangerous drugs on account of switching, "planting," or contamination of evidence. Accordingly, the prosecution must be able to account for each link of the chain of custody from the moment the illegal drugs are seized up to their presentation in court as evidence of the crime.27
In this regard, Section 21, Article II of RA 9165 outlines the procedure which the police officers must follow when handling the seized drugs in order to preserve their integrity and evidentiary value.28 Under the said section, prior to its amendment by RA 10640,29 the apprehending team shall, among others, immediately after seizure and confiscation conduct a physical inventory and photograph the seized items in the presence of the accused or the person from whom the items were seized, or his 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 of the same, and the seized drugs must be turned over to the PNP Crime Laboratory within twenty-four (24) hours from confiscation for examination.30 In the case of People v. Mendoza,31 the Court stressed that "[w]ithout the insulating presence of the representative from the media or the [DOJ], or any elected public official during the seizure and marking of the [seized drugs], the evils of switching, 'planting' or contamination of the evidence that had tainted the buy-busts conducted under the regime of [RA] 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 [said drugs] that were evidence herein of the corpus delicti, and thus adversely affected the trustworthiness of the incrimination of the accused. Indeed, the x x x presence of such witnesses would have preserved an unbroken chain of custody."32
The Court, however, clarified that under varied field conditions, strict compliance with the requirements of Section 21, Article II of RA 9165 may not always be possible.33 In fact, the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 9165 – which is now crystallized into statutory law with the passage of RA 1064034 – provides that the said inventory and photography may be conducted at the nearest police station or office of the apprehending team in instances of warrantless seizure, and that non-compliance with the requirements of Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, – under justifiable grounds – will not render void and invalid the seizure and custody over the seized items so long as the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer or team.35 In other words, the failure of the apprehending team to strictly comply with the procedure laid out in Section 21, Article II of RA 9165 and its IRR does 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 justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved.36 In People v. Almorfe,37 the Court stressed that for the above-saving clause to apply, the prosecution must explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses, and that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized evidence had nonetheless been preserved.38 Also, in People v. De Guzman,39 it was emphasized 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.40
In this case, the Court finds that the police officers committed unjustified deviations from the prescribed chain of custody rule, thereby putting into question the integrity and evidentiary value of the items purportedly seized from accused-appellants.
An examination of the records reveals that while the requisite inventory of the seized drugs was conducted in the presence of accused-appellants and an elected public official, the same was not done in the presence of the representatives from the media and the DOJ. More significantly, the apprehending officers failed to proffer a plausible explanation therefor.
During his cross-examination, IO1 Avenido admitted that the DOJ office is near the place of arrest, as in fact, it was only a five (5) minute walk therefrom. However, when asked if he bothered to pass by it to secure a DOJ representative, he did not provide a categorical answer, and instead, disavowed responsibility therefor, claiming that there were other members of the buy-bust team who were assigned to accomplish such task, to wit:
Q: The arrest allegedly happened at NIA Agham, correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: The DOJ agency building is right there, correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: About 5 minutes walk?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Did you bother to pass the DOJ Building to get a DOJ representative?
A: We have other team members assigned to that, sir but I don't remember why they haven't brought any DOJ representative at that time. sir.
Q: Did you bother to get Public Attorney from the Public Attorney's Office which was also located at the DOJ Agency Building at Agham NIA Road?
A: I don't clearly remember, sir but we have the public elected official as a witness.
x x x x
Q: I was referring to the counsel of the accused. Did you furnish them of counsel of their own choice or a counsel from the government?
A: Yes, sir. During that time we appraise their rights. The other members because we have a designation in our team I think they are the one who contacted the witnesses for the accused. I think they only brought the Kagawad, sir.
x x x x41 (Underscoring supplied)
Similarly, IO1 Reyes disclaimed liability but maintained that it was their team leader, SOII Macairap, who was specifically assigned to contact the representatives from the media and DOJ, viz:
Q: Did you contact a DOJ representative to witness the inventory taking?
A: From what I recall, it was our team leader who assigned the persons who would call the DOJ representative and the media representative, sir.
Q: Do you have any evidence that they were actually called?
A: The Kagawad that they called came together with our team leader, sir.
Q: How about the media man, do you have any evidence that he was contacted?
A: I could not recall anything about it, it is the team leader who can answer it, sir.
x x x x
Q: And considering that you actually know those rights, did you get a counsel for the herein accused during their custody?
A: Actually, nobody came. It was the duty of our team leader to task a personnel who would make the call but when the Barangay Kagawad came, our team leader decided to conduct the inventory, sir.
Q: Even without counsel?
A: Yes, sir, probably so that we would not exceed the allowable time as provided in Section 21 as to the handling of the evidence, sir.
x x x x42 (Emphases and underscoring supplied)
Verily, apart from the unsubstantiated allegations of the prosecution witnesses, there was no showing that the apprehending officers attempted to contact and secure the presence of representatives from the media and the DOJ. Furthermore, no plausible reasons were given as to why their presence could not be easily secured. Neither would IO1 Reyes's claim – that SOII Macairap decided to immediately conduct the inventory despite the absence of the other witnesses in order "not to exceed the allowable time as provided in Section 21 as to the handling of the evidence" – have any credence, considering that SOII Macairap himself was never presented in court to corroborate it. Besides, the fact that it would take someone only five (5) minutes of walk to reach the DOJ building from the place of arrest clearly repudiates such claim.
Without a doubt, procedural lapses committed by the police officers, which were unfortunately 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.43 The procedure in Section 21, Article II of RA 9165 is a matter of substantive law, and cannot be brushed aside as a simple procedural technicality; or worse, ignored as an impediment to the conviction of illegal drug suspects.44 As such, since the prosecution in this case failed to provide justifiable grounds for non-compliance with Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, the acquittal of accused-appellants is perforce in order.
As a final note, the Court finds it fitting to echo its recurring pronouncement in recent jurisprudence on the subject matter:
The Court strongly supports the campaign of the government against drug addiction and commends the efforts of our law enforcement officers against those who would inflict this malediction upon our people, especially the susceptible youth. But as demanding as this campaign may be, it cannot be more so than the compulsions of the Bill of Rights for the protection of liberty of every individual in the realm, including the basest of criminals. The Constitution covers with the mantle of its protection the innocent and the guilty alike against any manner of high-handedness from the authorities, however praiseworthy their intentions.
Those who are supposed to enforce the law are not justified in disregarding the right of the individual in the name of order. [For indeed,] [o]rder is too high a price for the loss of liberty. x x x.45
"In this light, prosecutors are strongly reminded that they have the positive duty to prove compliance with the procedure set forth in Section 211, Article II] of RA 9165, as amended. As such, they must have the initiative to not only acknowledge but also justify any perceived deviations from the said procedure during the proceedings before the trial court. Since compliance with this procedure is determinative of the integrity and evidentiary value of the corpus delicti and ultimately, the fate of the liberty of the accused, the fact that any issue regarding the same was not raised, or even threshed out in the court/s below, would not preclude the appellate court, including this Court, from fully examining the records of the case if only to ascertain whether the procedure had been completely complied with, and if not, whether justifiable reasons exist to excuse any deviation. If no such reasons exist, then it is the appellate court's bounden duty to acquit the accused, and perforce, overturn a conviction."46
WHEREFORE, the motion for reconsideration is GRANTED. The Resolution dated April 17, 2017 of the Court affirming the Decision dated March 31, 2016 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07231 is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. A new one is ENTERED ACQUITTING accused-appellants Bernie Delociembre y Andales and Dhats Adam y Danga of the crime charged. The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is ordered to cause their immediate release, unless they are being lawfully held in custody for any other reason.
Leonardo-De Castro, (Chairperson), Del Castillo, Jardeleza,* and Caguioa, JJ., concur.
* Designated Additional Member per Raffle dated June 6, 2018.
1 Dated July 20, 2017; rollo, p. 32-38.
2 Id at 30-31. Signed by Division Clerk of Court Edgar O. Aricheta.
3 Id. at 2-11. Penned by Associate Justice Francisco P. Acosta with Associate Justices Noel G. Tijam (now a member of the Court) and Eduardo B. Peralta, Jr. concurring.
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 April 12, 2010. Records, pp. 1-2
6 Id. at 1.
7 "Macalrap" in some parts of the records.
8 TSN dated November 9, 2010, pp. 4-5. See also rollo, p. 3.
9 See records, pp. 318-322. See also rollo, pp. 3-4; and Chemistry Report No. PDEA-DD010-130 dated April 8, 2010, records, p. 96 (including dorsal portion).
10 See rollo, pp. 4-5.
11 See id. at 5.
12 Records, pp. 317-328. Penned by Presiding Judge Fernando T. Sagun, Jr.
13 See id. at 327-328.
14 See id. at 325-327.
15 See Notice of Appeal dated January 9, 2015; id. at 336.
16 Rollo, pp. 2-11.
17 Id. at 10.
18 See id. at 8-10.
19 See Notice of Appeal dated April26, 2016; id. at 12-14.
20 See Notice of Resolution dated April 17, 2017 signed by Division Clerk of Court Edgar O. Aricheta.
21 Id. at 30.
22 Dated July 20, 2017. Id. at 32-38.
23 See id. at 34-37.
24 See People v. Dahil, 150 Phil. 212, 225 (2015).
25 People v. Comboy, G.R. No. 218399, March 2, 2016, 785 SCRA 512, 521.
26 People v. Sumili, 153 Phil. 342, 348 (2015).
27 See People v. Viterbo, 739 Phil. 593, 6011 (2014).
28 See People v. Sumili, supra note 23, at 349 350.
29 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.
30 Sec Section 21 (1) and (2), Article II of RA 9165.
31 736 Phil. 749 (2014).
32 Id. at 764; emphases and underscoring supplied.
33 See People v. Sanchez, 590 Phil. 214, 234 (2008).
34 Section 1 of RA 10640 provides:
Section 1. Section 21 of Republic Act No. 9165, otherwise known as the "Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002," is hereby amended to read as follows:
"SEC. 21. Custody and Disposition of Confiscated. Seized, and/or Surrendered Dangerous Drugs, Plant Sources of Dangerous Drugs, Controlled Precursors and Essential Chemicals, Instruments/Paraphernalia and/or Laboratory Equipment. - The PDEA shall take charge and have custody of all dangerous drugs, plant sources of dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals, as well as instruments/paraphernalia and/or laboratory equipment so confiscated, seized and/or surrendered, for proper disposition in the following manner:
"(1) The apprehending team having initial custody and control of the dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals, instruments/paraphernalia and/or laboratory equipment shall, immediately after seizure and confiscation, conduct a physical inventory of the seized items and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the persons from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, with an elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service or the media who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof: Provided, That the physical inventory and photograph shall be conducted at the place where the search warrant is served; or at the nearest police station or at the nearest office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable. in case of warrantless seizures: Provided, finally, That noncompliance of these requirements under justifiable grounds, as long as the i:1tegrity 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.
x x x x"
35 See also Section 21 (a), Article II of the IRR of RA 9165. See also People v. Ceralde, G.R. No. 228894, August 7, 2017.
36 See People v. Goco, G.R. No. 219584, October 17, 2016, 806 SCRA 240, 252; citation omitted.
37 631 Phil. 51 (2010).
38 Id. at 60.
39 630 Phil. 637 (2010).
40 Id. at 649.
41 TSN, February 28, 2012, pp. 6-7.
42 TSN, June 18, 2013, p. 8-10.
43 See People v. Sumili, supra note 23, at 352.
44 See People v. Macapundag, G.R. No. 225965, March 13, 2017, citing People v. Umipang, 686 Phil. 1024, 1038 (2012).
45 People v. Go, 457 Phil. 885, 925 (2003), citing People v. Aminnudin, 246 Phil. 424, 434-435 (1988).
46 See People v. Miranda, G.R. No. 229671, January 31, 2018.
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