[ G.R. No. 208472, October 14, 2019 ]
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. EDUARDO LACDAN Y PEREZ @ "EDWIN" AND ROMUALDO VIERNEZA Y BONDOC @ "ULO", ACCUSED-APPELLANTS.
Before this Court is an ordinary appeal1 filed by Eduardo Lacdan y Perez @ "Edwin" (Lacdan) and Romualdo Vierneza y Bondoc @ "Ulo" (Vierneza; collectively, accused-appellants) assailing the Decision2 dated January 16, 2012 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 03717, which affirmed the Judgment3 dated November 25, 2008 of the Regional Trial Court of San Pedro, Laguna, Branch 31 (RTC) finding accused-appellants guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 5 of Republic Act No. (R.A.) 9165, otherwise known as the "Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002," and sentencing them to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine of P500,000.00 each.
Facts of the Case
On February 11, 2004, an Information4 was filed against accused-appellants charging them with violation of Section 5, in relation to Section 26 of R.A. 9165, involving 10.03 grams of shabu.
The prosecution's version of the incident, as culled from the records, are as follows:
On February 9, 2004, at around 5:00 p.m., a confidential informant went to Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Regional Office, Calabarzon (PDEA), stationed at Camp Vicente Lim in Calamba City, Laguna to relay to Regional Director Sgt. Amado Marquez (Sgt. Marquez) that he was able to negotiate a drug deal with accused-appellants involving 10.03 grams of shabu worth P18,000.00.5
Sgt. Marquez referred the matter to Police Senior Inspector Julius Ceasar Ablang (S/Insp. Ablang) who verified the information and formed a buy-bust team to conduct the operation against accused-appellants.6 A team composed of S/Insp. Ablang as the team leader, Inspector Josefino Ligan (Insp. Ligan) as Assistant Team Leader, SPO4 Marianito Villanueva (SPO4 Villanueva) as arresting officer, PO3 Danilo Liona (PO3 Liona) as member and PO3 Marino Garcia (PO3 Garcia) as the poseur-buyer was formed.7 It was agreed that once the arresting officer sees the poseur-buyer give the buy-bust money to accused-appellants, the team would come forward and arrest them. S/Insp. Ablang gave PO3 Garcia two pieces of genuine P500.00 bills marked with "MAG" while the rest of the P18,000.00 used to purchase the shabu consisted of "boodle" money. The boodle money was placed in between the two genuine P500.00 bills.8
At around 3:00 a.m. of February 10, 2004, the team proceeded to the San Pedro Town Center in San Pedro, Laguna and arrived at the parking lot at around 4:00 a.m. The confidential informant, through cellular phone, was in constant communication with accused-appellants.9 After one and a half hours of waiting, PO3 Garcia saw accused-appellants disembark from a tricycle. The confidential informant introduced PO3 Garcia to accused-appellants who asked if the former had with him the P18,000.00 agreed upon. PO3 Garcia pulled out the buy-bust money from his pocket and flashed it to accused-appellants. Vierneza pulled out from his pocket one big heat-sealed transparent sachet containing white crystalline substance and handed the same to PO3 Garcia. When Lacdan demanded payment for the substance, PO3 Garcia handed him the buy-bust money.10
Upon seeing that the sale had been consummated, the rest of the buy-bust team rushed accused-appellants and introduced themselves as members of the PDEA. Upon having been apprised of their constitutional rights, accused-appellants were brought to the PDEA Office in Camp Vicente Lim. At the PDEA Office, PO3 Garcia placed his initials on the plastic sachet and inventoried the same in the presence of an elected official and a representative from media. Thereafter, the plastic sachet was submitted to the crime laboratory for testing. The forensic examination yielded a positive result that the white crystalline substance contained in the confiscated plastic sachet was indeed shabu.11
The defense presented accused-appellants and two others as their witnesses.
Lacdan testified that on February 10, 2004, he was resting at home when he received a call from a certain "Karen" asking him to go to Sogo Hotel at San Pedro, Laguna. When Lacdan arrived at Sogo Hotel, he proceeded to Room 122 and was surprised to see Karen with a companion inside who pointed a gun at him. Thereafter, two more men entered the room and forced Lacdan to bring them to a place where a certain "Arnel" lives. When they arrived at Arnel's place, there were about five to six people conversing and were also arrested. They were all brought to Canlubang, Laguna where they were detained.12
Vierneza, for his part, stated that at the time of the incident, he was gathering food for his pigs when he saw four to five people conversing. All of a sudden, a Toyota Revo stopped by and five armed men alighted therefrom. Someone poked a gun at Vierneza who forced him to ride the Revo. While on board the Revo, he overheard the men saying, "hindi naman ito ang tao."13
The two other witnesses corroborated Vierneza's testimony.14
On November 25, 2008, the RTC rendered its Decision finding that the elements of illegal sale of shabu were proven beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution.15 The RTC gave more credence to the testimonies of the police officers who were presumed to have regularly performed their duties than the accounts of accused-appellants.16
Aggrieved by their conviction, accused-appellants filed an appeal to the CA. On January 16, 2012, the CA affirmed their conviction. It was determined that not only did the prosecution establish the elements of illegal sale of shabu but also the observance of the chain of custody rule. The CA concluded that through the testimony of SPO4 Villanueva, it was proved that an illegal sale of shabu transpired between accused-appellants as sellers and PO3 Garcia as poseur-buyer. The sachet of shabu was thereafter submitted to the crime laboratory for testing.17 This was concluded as sufficient to prove the corpus delicti of the crime.
In their Supplemental Brief,18 accused-appellants questioned the lack of compliance with Section 21(a) of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of R.A. 9165 in the conduct of the buy-bust operation and their subsequent arrest. Specifically, accused-appellants claimed that the illicit drugs allegedly recovered from them were not photographed and the inventory was not done in the presence of a representative from the media, a representative from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and an elected official.
The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) manifested that they would no longer file a supplemental brief and instead, adopted the Appellee's Brief it filed to the CA.
The sole issue in this case is whether or not the CA erred in upholding the conviction of accused-appellants for violation of Section 5, Article II of R.A. 9165.
The appeal is meritorious.
Before going into the discussion on the non-compliance with the requirements for the proper custody of seized dangerous drugs under R.A. 9165, the Court must first re-examine the penchant of police officers in using boodle money in the conduct of buy-bust operations. "Boodle" money means bundles of cut-out newspapers in the size of money bills. They are not counterfeit money so they do not appear as though they are genuine bills. Hence, even to an ordinary person who sees genuine money on a regular basis, they would appear obvious as newspaper cut-outs and not genuine peso bills.
In this case, it was established that PO3 Garcia allegedly paid P18,000.00 for 10.03 grams of shabu using two genuine P500.00 bills with the remaining boodle money to have been placed in between the two P500.00 bills. When asked by Lacdan if he had the money, PO3 Garcia showed the money to him. Lacdan gave a hand signal and immediately, Vierneza pulled out from his pocket the plastic sachet and gave it to PO3 Garcia. PO3 Garcia then handed the two P500.00 bills and the boodle money to Lacdan. It was also established that the alleged buy-bust operation was made at around 6:00 a.m., which was already bright and the sun having already risen. Hence, it is more in accord with human experience that the P18,000.00 with only two genuine P500.00 bills would be obvious to accused-appellants who would have been alerted that something was off and which could have led to the non-consummation of the alleged buy-bust operation. The narration of the police officers that accused-appellants accepted the payment of the illicit drugs without raising any alarm even if it would have been apparent that the money paid was only boodle money is, at best, questionable and not credible.
In addition to the questionable conduct of the buy-bust operation using boodle money, in cases of illegal sale of dangerous drugs under R.A. 9165, it is also 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 which therefore warrants an acquittal.20 In order to establish the identity of the dangerous drug with moral certainty, there must be observance of the chain of custody rule enshrined in Section 21 of R.A. 9156.ℒαwρhi৷
Here, since the buy-bust operation was conducted prior to the amendment of R.A. 9165, the apprehending team is mandated, immediately after seizure and confiscation, to conduct a physical inventory and to photograph the seized items 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: (1) a representative from the media; (2) a representative from the DOJ; and (3) any elected public official.21
In this case, the records provide that the inventory of the illicit drugs was made in the PDEA Office in Camp Vicente Lim in Calamba City, Laguna when the buy-bust operation was conducted in San Pedro, Laguna or some 20 kilometers away from the former. Further, the inventory was only witnessed by the accused, a representative from the media, and an elected public official. The illicit drug was not even photographed as required by Section 21. There was no explanation offered as to: (1) why the inventory was made in Calamba City and not in San Pedro; (2) why there was no photograph of the illicit drug; and (3) why the inventory was not witnessed by a representative from the DOJ.
These glaring non-compliance with the provisions of Section 21 of R.A. 9165 render the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items to be highly compromised, consequently warranting accused-appellants' acquittal.
As much as convictions for violations of R.A. 9165 almost always reach the Court, a continuous reminder must be given to prosecutors of their duty to prove compliance with the provisions laid down in Section 21 or to present justifications in cases of deviation thereof before the trial court. It must be borne in mind that the Court will not hesitate to overturn the conviction of the accused in case of non-compliance or failure to justify the deviations on the procedure laid down by the law, as in this case.
WHEREFORE, the appeal is GRANTED. The Decision dated January 16, 2012 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 03717 is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, accused-appellants Eduardo Lacdan y Perez @ "Edwin" and Romualdo Vierneza y Bondoc @ "Ulo" are ACQUITTED of the crime charged against them and are ORDERED to be immediately released, unless they are being lawfully held in custody for any other reason.
Bersamin, C.J., (Chairperson), Gesmundo,* and Zalameda,** JJ., concur.
Perlas-Bernabe, J., on official business.
* Acting Working Chairperson.
** Designated as Additional Member of the First Division per Special Order No. 2712.
1 Rollo, at pp. 15-16.
2 Penned by Associate Justice Noel G. Tijam (Former Member of this Court), with Associate Justices Romeo F. Barza and Edwin D. Sorongon, concurring; id at 2-14.
3 CA rollo, pp. 36-44.
4 Records, pp. 1-3.
5 Rollo, p. 4.
7 Id at 5.
10 Id. at 5-6.
11 Id. at 6.
12 Id. at 7.
14 CA rollo, pp. 40-41.
15 Id. at 44.
16 Id. at 43-44.
17 Records, p. 14.
18 Rollo, pp. 29-35.
19 People v. Crispo, G.R. No. 230065, March 14, 2018.
20 See People v. Gamboa, G.R. No. 233702, June 20, 2018.
21 R.A. 9165, Section 21(1).
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