SECOND DIVISION

January 14, 2019

G.R. No. 232940

DENNIS LOAYON Y LUIS, Petitioner
vs.
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Respondent

D E C I S I O N

PERLAS-BERNABE, J.:

Assailed in this petition for review on certiorari1 are the Decision2 dated March 6, 2017 and the Resolution3 dated July 13, 2017 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR No. 37683, which affirmed the Decision4 dated June 16, 2015 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City, Branch 227 (RTC) in Criminal Case No. Q-10-163024, finding petitioner Dennis Loayon y Luis (Loayon) guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Section 11, Article II of Republic Act No. (RA) 9165,5 otherwise known as the "Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002."

The Facts

This case stemmed from an Information6 filed before the RTC accusing Loayon of the crime of Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs. The prosecution alleged that at around 5 o'clock in the afternoon of February 24, 2010, a buy-bust team composed of police officers from the Quezon City Police District Station 9 (QCPD Station 9) went to Barangay Pansol to conduct a buy-bust operation against a certain "Awang." However, before the sale transaction between Awang and the poseur-buyer took place, Awang's companion, later identified as Loayon, shouted "Pulis yan!" after recognizing the poseur-buyer as a policeman, which prompted Awang and Loayon to run away in different directions. While Awang was able to elude the buy-bust team, one of the policemen, Police Officer 2 Raymund De Vera (PO2 De Vera), was able to corner Loayon, resulting in the latter's arrest. He likewise recovered the plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance thrown away by Loayon during the chase. Thereafter, the buy-bust team, together with Loayon, went to QCPD Station 9 where, inter alia, the seized item was marked, photographed, and inventoried in the presence of Barangay Kagawad Rommel Asuncion (Brgy. Kagawad Asuncion). The seized plastic sachet was then brought to the crime laboratory where, after examination,7 the contents thereof yielded positive for 0.03 gram of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or shabu, a dangerous drug.8

In defense, Loayon denied the charges against him, claiming instead, that he just got out of his house to look for his wife when he saw policemen chasing some people. Suddenly, one of the policemen apprehended him and remarked, "Pong ka na, Awang!" He was then taken to QCPD Station 9, where he was detained until the instant criminal charge was filed against him.9

In a Decision10 dated June 16, 2015, the RTC found Loayon guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged, and accordingly, sentenced him to suffer the penalty of imprisonment for an indeterminate period of twelve (12) years and one (1) day, as minimum, to fourteen (14) years, as maximum, and to pay a fine in the amount of ₱300,000.00.11 The RTC found that the prosecution had established all the elements of the crime charged, noting that the policemen had no ill motive to inculpate Loayon and build a trumped-up charge against him. It also found that the policemen substantially complied with the chain of custody rule, thereby preserving the integrity and evidentiary value of the item seized from Loayon.12 Aggrieved, Loayon appealed to the CA.

In a Decision13 dated March 6, 2017, the CA affirmed the RTC ruling. It held that the policemen's positive identification of Loayon as the possessor of the seized plastic sachet, which he threw away while he was being chased, shall prevail over the latter's bare denials, which was uncorroborated by other evidence. Moreover, it observed that the prosecution was able to prove the crucial links in the chain of custody of the seized item.14

Undaunted, Loayon moved for reconsideration,15 but the same was denied in a Resolution16 dated July 13, 2017; hence, this petition.17

The Court's Ruling

The petition is meritorious.1шphi1

In cases for Illegal Sale and/or Illegal Possession of Dangerous Drugs under RA 9165,18 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.19 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.20

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.21 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.22 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."23 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.24

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, "a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official";25 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."26 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."27

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."28 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."29

Nonetheless, the Court has recognized that due to varying field conditions, strict compliance with the chain of custody procedure may not always be possible.30 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.31 The foregoing is based on the saving clause found in Section 21 (a),32 Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 9165, which was later adopted into the text of RA 10640.33 It should, however, be emphasized that for the saving clause to apply, the prosecution must duly explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses,34 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.35

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.36 Thus, mere statements of unavailability, absent actual serious attempts to contact the required witnesses, are unacceptable as justified grounds for non-compliance.37 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.38

Notably, the Court, in People v. Miranda,39 issued a definitive reminder to prosecutors when dealing with drugs cases.1шphi1 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.40

In this case, there was a deviation from the witness requirement as the conduct of inventory and photography was not witnessed by representatives from the DOJ and the media. This may be easily gleaned from the Inventory of Seized Properties/Items41 dated February 24, 2010, which only confirms the presence of an elected public official, i.e., Brgy. Kagawad Asuncion. Such finding is confirmed by the testimony of the poseur-buyer, PO2 De Vera on direct and cross-examination, to wit:

Direct Examination

[Fiscal Bacolor]: In connection with this case, [M]r. [W]itness, did you conduct [a] Physical Inventory of that item recovered from the accused?

[PO2 De Vera]: Yes, sir.

Q: Who personally conduct[ed] the inventory?

A: Our [i]nvestigator, Barangay Kagawad, and in my presence.

Q: Who prepared the Inventory Receipt?

A: PO3 Crisologo Laggui.

Q: You said you were present during the conduct and the preparation of the [i]nventory, I'm showing to you a document entitled Inventory of Seized Property marked as Exhibit "F", will you please examine that document, and tell us if the same has any relation with that [i]nventory prepared by PO3 Crisologo Laggui?

A: Yes sir, this is the same inventory.

Q: You said Brgy. Kagawad was present during the inventory?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Do you have proof?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Where is that?

A: He signed the inventory, sir.

Q: Will you please examine again the [i]nventory, and point to us the said witness, Brgy. Kagawad[?]

A: Yes sir, this is the signature of Brgy. Kagawad, Rommel Asuncion.42

Cross-Examination

[Atty. Mallabo]: Likewise, in preserving the integrity of the evidence that you confiscated, you are required by law[,] particularly Sec. 21, R.A. 9165, to prepare an inventory. [I]n this case, did you prepare an inventory?

[PO2 De Vera]: Yes, sir.

Q: It was the investigator, who prepared the [i]nventory?

A: In my presence.

Q: But there was no representative from the Department of Justice?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Why?

A: There is no available representative.

Q: You are trying to tell us that here in Quezon City, drivers within 24 hrs of call and there are vehicles on duty, you don't tell us that the Fiscal is not available, likewise, there was a representative from media?

A: There was no available media at that time.

Q: Even if it was 5:00 o'clock as you claimed?

A: None, sir.43

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, while PO2 De Vera acknowledged the absence of representatives from the DOJ and the media during the conduct of inventory and photography, he merely offered the perfunctory explanation that "no one was available" without showing whether the buy-bust team exerted earnest efforts to secure their attendance therein. 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 Loayon was compromised, which consequently warrants his acquittal.

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The Decision dated March 6, 2017 and the Resolution dated July 13, 2017 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR No. 37683 are hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, petitioner Dennis Loayon y Luis is ACQUITTED of the crime 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, J. Reyes, Jr., and Hernando,* JJ., concur.


Footnotes

* Designated Additional Member per Special Order Nos. 2629 and 2630 dated December 18, 2018.

1 Rollo, pp. 13-32.

2 Id. at 34-43. Penned by Associate Justice Ricardo R. Rosario with Associate Justices Edwin D. Sorongon and Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob, concurring.

3 Id. at 45.

4 Id. at 64-69. Penned by Presiding Judge Elvira D.C. Panganiban.

5 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.

6 Records, pp. 1 and 2.

7 See Chemistry Report No. D-81-10 dated February 25, 2010; id. at 6.

8 Id.

9 Rollo, p. 36.

10 Id. at 64-69.

11 Id. at 68.

12 See id. at 68.

13 Id. at 34-43.

14 See id. at 40-42.

15 CA rollo, pp. 130-135.

16 Rollo, p. 45.

17 Id. at 13-28.

18 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]).

19 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)."

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

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

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

23 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).

24 See People v. Tumulak, supra note 22; and People v. Rollo, supra note 22.

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

26 Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, as amended by RA 10640.

27 See People v. Bangalan, G.R. No. 232249, September 3, 2018, citing People v. Miranda, supra note 18.

28 See People v. Miranda, supra note 18. See also People v. Macapundag, G.R. No. 225965, March 13, 2017, citing People v. Umipang, supra note 19, at 1038.

29 See People v. Segundo, G.R. No. 205614, July 26, 2017, citing People v. Umipang, supra note 19.

30 See People v. Sanchez, 590 Phil. 214, 234 (2008).

31 See People v. Almorfe, 631 Phil. 51, 60 (2010).

32 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[.|"

33 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."

34 People v. Almorfe, supra note 31.

35 People v. De Guzman, 630 Phil. 637, 649 (2010).

36 See People v. Manansala, supra note 18.

37 See People v. Gamboa, supra note 20, citing People v. Umipang, supra note 20, at 1053.

38 See People v. Crispo, supra note 18.

39 Supra note 18.

40 See id.

41 Records, p. 9.

42 TSN, April 11, 2012, pp. 15-16, records, pp. 124-125.

43 TSN, February 6, 2013, pp. 8-9, records, pp. 147-148.


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