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INVENTORY AND CHAIN OF CUSTODY IN DRUGS CASES

Posted by legalhawk on August 18, 2010

 

The Importance of Strict Compliance of the Inventory and Chain of Custody Provision of RA 9165

The Supreme Court came out with a Ruling of a case pertaining to sale of drugs.  This was a clarification of earlier rulings of the highest court of the land relative to the conduct of inventory of the confiscated items and the proof of the chain of custody of the said items leading to the presentation of the said object evidences in court.  To read the original case in full please click on the following link: http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/jurisprudence/2010/august2010/179029.htm

To appraise you of the Court Ruling that would interest the readers to read the case in full, the dispositive portion is quoted verbatim below:

THE COURT’S RULING

After due consideration, we resolve to acquit the appellant for the prosecution’s failure to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Specifically, the prosecution failed to show that the police complied with paragraph 1, Section 21, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, and with the chain of custody requirement of this Act.

The Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act: A Brief Background

R.A. No. 9165 was enacted in 2002 to pursue the State’s policy to “safeguard the integrity of its territory and the well-being of its citizenry particularly the youth, from the harmful effects of dangerous drugs on their physical and mental well-being, and to defend the same against acts or omissions detrimental to their development and preservation.”

R.A. No. 9165 repealed and superseded R.A. No. 6425, known as the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972. Realizing that dangerous drugs are one of the most serious social ills of the society at present, Congress saw the need to further enhance the efficacy of the law against dangerous drugs. The new law thus mandates the government to pursue an intensive and unrelenting campaign against the trafficking and use of dangerous drugs and other similar substances through an integrated system of planning, implementation and enforcement of anti-drug abuse policies, programs and projects.[1][25]

Illegal Sale of Drugs under Section 5 vis-à-vis the Inventory and Photograph Requirement under Section 21

In a prosecution for illegal sale of a prohibited drug under Section 5 of R.A. No. 9165, the prosecution must prove the following elements: (1) the identity of the buyer and the seller, the object, and the consideration; and (2) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment therefor. All these require evidence that the sale transaction transpired, coupled with the presentation in court of the corpus delicti, i.e., the body or substance of the crime that establishes that a crime has actually been committed, as shown by presenting the object of the illegal transaction.[2][26] To remove any doubt or uncertainty on the identity and integrity of the seized drug, evidence must definitely show that the illegal drug presented in court is the same illegal drug actually recovered from the appellant; otherwise, the prosecution for possession or for drug pushing under R.A. No. 9165 fails.[3][27]

The required procedure on the seizure and custody of drugs is embodied in Section 21, paragraph 1, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, which states:

(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 is implemented by Section 21(a), Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of R.A. No. 9165, which reads:

(a) The apprehending officer/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, 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, 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[.]

Strict compliance with the prescribed procedure is required because of the illegal drug’s unique characteristic rendering it indistinct, not readily identifiable, and easily open to tampering, alteration or substitution either by accident or otherwise.[4][28] The records of the present case are bereft of evidence showing that the buy-bust team followed the outlined procedure despite its mandatory terms. The deficiency is patent from the following exchanges at the trial:

PROSECUTOR [EMERSON TURINGAN]:

Q: After you handed this buy-bust money to the accused, what happened next?

[PO3 ALMAREZ:]

A: When the shabu was already with me and I gave him the money[,] I signaled the two, Captain Jaime de Vera and SPO1 Balido, sir.

x x x x

Q: After you gave that signal, what happened?

A: Then they approached us and helped me in arresting Felimon Pagaduan, sir.

Q: After Pagaduan was arrested, what happened next?

A: After arresting Pagaduan[,] we brought him directly in Diadi Police Station, sir.

Q: What happened when you brought the accused to the Police Station in Diadi?

A: When we were already in Diadi Police Station, we first put him in jail in the Municipal Jail of Diadi, Nueva Vizcaya, sir.

Q: What did you do with the shabu?

A: The request for laboratory examination was prepared and was brought to the Crime Lab. of Solano, Nueva Vizcaya, sir.

x x x x

Q: After making the request, what did you do next[,] if any[,] Mr. Witness?

A: After submission of the request to the Crime Lab.[,] we prepared our joint affidavit for submission of the case to the Court, sir.[5][29]

From the foregoing exchanges during trial, it is evident that the apprehending team, upon confiscation of the drug, immediately brought the appellant and the seized items to the police station, and, once there, made the request for laboratory examination. No physical inventory and photograph of the seized items were taken in the presence of the accused or his counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice, and an elective official. PO3 Almarez, on cross-examination, was unsure and could not give a categorical answer when asked whether he issued a receipt for the shabu confiscated from the appellant.[6][30] At any rate, no such receipt or certificate of inventory appears in the records.

In several cases, we have emphasized the importance of compliance with the prescribed procedure in the custody and disposition of the seized drugs. We have repeatedly declared that the deviation from the standard procedure dismally compromises the integrity of the evidence. In People v. Morales,[7][31] we acquitted the accused for failure of the buy-bust team to photograph and inventory the seized items, without giving any justifiable ground for the non-observance of the required procedures. People v. Garcia[8][32] likewise resulted in an acquittal because no physical inventory was ever made, and no photograph of the seized items was taken under the circumstances required by R.A. No. 9165 and its implementing rules. In Bondad, Jr. v. People,[9][33] we also acquitted the accused for the failure of the police to conduct an inventory and to photograph the seized items, without justifiable grounds.

We had the same rulings in People v. Gutierrez,[10][34] People v. Denoman,[11][35] People v. Partoza,[12][36] People v. Robles,[13][37] and People v. dela Cruz,[14][38] where we emphasized the importance of complying with the required mandatory procedures under Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165.

We recognize that the strict compliance with the requirements of Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 may not always be possible under field conditions; the police operates under varied conditions, and cannot at all times attend to all the niceties of the procedures in the handling of confiscated evidence. For this reason, the last sentence of the implementing rules provides 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[.]” Thus, noncompliance with the strict directive of Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 is not necessarily fatal to the prosecution’s case; police procedures in the handling of confiscated evidence may still have some lapses, as in the present case. These lapses, however, must be recognized and explained in terms of their justifiable grounds, and the integrity and evidentiary value of the evidence seized must be shown to have been preserved.[15][39]

In the present case, the prosecution did not bother to offer any explanation to justify the failure of the police to conduct the required physical inventory and photograph of the seized drugs. The apprehending team failed to show why an inventory and photograph of the seized evidence had not been made either in the place of seizure and arrest or at the nearest police station (as required by the Implementing Rules in case of warrantless arrests). We emphasize that for the saving clause to apply, it is important that the prosecution explain the reasons behind the procedural lapses, and that the integrity and value of the seized evidence had been preserved.[16][40] In other words, the justifiable ground for noncompliance must be proven as a fact. The court cannot presume what these grounds are or that they even exist.[17][41]

The “Chain of Custody” Requirement

Proof beyond reasonable doubt demands that unwavering exactitude be observed in establishing the corpus delicti – the body of the crime whose core is the confiscated illicit drug. Thus, every fact necessary to constitute the crime must be established. The chain of custody requirement performs this function in buy-bust operations as it ensures that doubts concerning the identity of the evidence are removed.[18][42]

Black’s Law Dictionary explains chain of custody in this wise:

In evidence, the one who offers real evidence, such as the narcotics in a trial of drug case, must account for the custody of the evidence from the moment in which it reaches his custody until the moment in which it is offered in evidence, and such evidence goes to weight not to admissibility of evidence. Com. V. White, 353 Mass. 409, 232 N.E.2d 335.

Likewise, Section 1(b) of Dangerous Drugs Board Regulation No. 1, Series of 2002 which implements R.A. No. 9165 defines “chain of custody” as follows:

“Chain of Custody” means the duly recorded authorized movements and custody of seized drugs or controlled chemicals or plant sources of dangerous drugs or laboratory equipment of each stage, from the time of seizure/confiscation to receipt in the forensic laboratory to safekeeping to presentation in court for destruction. Such record of movements and custody of seized item shall include the identity and signature of the person who held temporary custody of the seized item, the date and time when such transfer of custody were made in the course of safekeeping and use in court as evidence, and the final disposition[.]

In Malillin v. People,[19][43] the Court explained that the chain of custody rule requires that there be testimony about every link in the chain, from the moment the object seized was picked up to the time it is offered in evidence, in such a way that every person who touched it would describe how and from whom it was received, where it was and what happened to it while in the witness’ possession, the condition in which it was received and the condition in which it was delivered to the next link in the chain.

In the present case, the prosecution’s evidence failed to establish the chain that would have shown that the shabu presented in court was the very same specimen seized from the appellant.

The first link in the chain of custody starts with the seizure of the heat-sealed plastic sachet from the appellant. PO3 Almarez mentioned on cross-examination that he placed his initials on the confiscated sachet “after apprehending” the appellant. Notably, this testimony constituted the totality of the prosecution’s evidence on the marking of the seized evidence. PO3 Almarez’s testimony, however, lacked specifics on how he marked the sachet and who witnessed the marking. In People v. Sanchez, we ruled that the “marking” of the seized items – to truly ensure that they are the same items that enter the chain and are eventually the ones offered in evidence – should be done (1) in the presence of the apprehended violator (2) immediately upon confiscation. In the present case, nothing in the records gives us an insight on the manner and circumstances that attended the marking of the confiscated sachet. Whether the marking had been done in the presence of the appellant is not at all clear from the evidence that merely mentioned that the evidence had been marked after the appellant’s apprehension.

The second link in the chain of custody is its turnover from the apprehending team to the police station. PO3 Almarez testified that the appellant was brought to the Diadi Police Station after his arrest. However, he failed to identify the person who had control and possession of the seized drug at the time of its transportation to the police station. In the absence of clear evidence, we cannot presume that PO3 Almarez, as the poseur buyer, handled the seized sachet – to the exclusion of others – during its transfer from the place of arrest and confiscation to the police station. The prosecution likewise failed to present evidence pertaining to the identity of the duty desk officer who received the plastic sachet containing shabu from the buy-bust team. This is particularly significant since the seized specimen was turned over to the PNP Crime Laboratory only after two days. It was not, therefore, clear who had temporary custody of the seized items during this significant intervening period of time. Although the records show that the request for laboratory examination of the seized plastic sachet was prepared by Captain de Vera, the evidence does not show that he was the official who received the marked plastic sachet from the buy-bust team.

As for the subsequent links in the chain of custody, the records show that the seized specimen was forwarded by PO3 Almarez to the PNP Crime Laboratory on December 29, 2003, where it was received by PO2 Dulnuan, and later examined by PSI Quintero. However, the person from whom PO3 Almarez received the seized illegal drug for transfer to the crime laboratory was not identified. As earlier discussed, the identity of the duty desk officer who received the shabu, as well as the person who had temporary custody of the seized items for two days, had not been established.

The procedural lapses mentioned above show the glaring gaps in the chain of custody, creating a reasonable doubt whether the drugs confiscated from the appellant were the same drugs that were brought to the crime laboratory for chemical analysis, and eventually offered in court as evidence. In the absence of concrete evidence on the illegal drugs bought and sold, the body of the crime – the corpus delicti – has not been adequately proven.[20][44] In effect, the prosecution failed to fully prove the elements of the crime charged, creating reasonable doubt on the appellant’s criminal liability.

Presumption of Regularity in the Performance of Official Duties

In sustaining the appellant’s conviction, the CA relied on the evidentiary presumption that official duties have been regularly performed. This presumption, it must be emphasized, is not conclusive.[21][45] It cannot, by itself, overcome the constitutional presumption of innocence. Any taint of irregularity affects the whole performance and should make the presumption unavailable. In the present case, the failure of the apprehending team to comply with paragraph 1, Section 21, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, and with the chain of custody requirement of this Act effectively negates this presumption. As we explained in Malillin v. People:[22][46]

The presumption of regularity is merely just that – a mere presumption disputable by contrary proof and which when challenged by the evidence cannot be regarded as binding truth. Suffice it to say that this presumption cannot preponderate over the presumption of innocence that prevails if not overthrown by proof beyond reasonable doubt. In the present case the lack of conclusive identification of the illegal drugs allegedly seized from petitioner, coupled with the irregularity in the manner by which the same were placed under police custody before offered in court, strongly militates a finding of guilt.

We are not unmindful of the pernicious effects of drugs in our society; they are lingering maladies that destroy families and relationships, and engender crimes. The Court is one with all the agencies concerned in pursuing an intensive and unrelenting campaign against this social dilemma. Regardless of how much we want to curb this menace, we cannot disregard the protection provided by the Constitution, most particularly the presumption of innocence bestowed on the appellant. Proof beyond reasonable doubt, or that quantum of proof sufficient to produce moral certainty that would convince and satisfy the conscience of those who act in judgment, is indispensable to overcome this constitutional presumption. If the prosecution has not proved, in the first place, all the elements of the crime charged, which in this case is the corpus delicti, then the appellant deserves no less than an acquittal.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, we hereby REVERSE and SET ASIDE the May 22, 2007 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 01597. Appellant Felimon Pagaduan y Tamayo is hereby ACQUITTED for failure of the prosecution to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. He is ordered immediately RELEASED from detention unless he is confined for another lawful cause.

Let a copy of this Decision be furnished the Director, Bureau of Corrections, Muntinlupa City for immediate implementation. The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is directed to report the action he has taken to this Court within five days from receipt of this Decision.

SO ORDERED.

ARTURO D. BRION

Associate Justice


[1][25] Integrity of Evidence in Dangerous Drugs Cases by Justice (ret.) Josue N. Bellosillo, 596 SCRA 278 (2009).

[2][26] People v. Garcia, G.R. No. 173480, February 25, 2009, 580 SCRA 259, 266.

[3][27] See People v. Denoman, G.R. No. 171732, August 14, 2009, 596 SCRA 257, 267.

[4][28] People v. Kamad, G.R. No. 174198, January 19, 2010.

[5][29] TSN, July 5, 2004, pp. 9-13.

[6][30] TSN, July 19, 2004, pp. 17-18.

[7][31] G.R. No. 172873, March 19, 2010.

[8][32] Supra note 26.

[9][33] G.R. No. 173804, December 10, 2008, 573 SCRA 497.

[10][34] G.R. No. 179213, September 3, 2009, 598 SCRA 92.

[11][35] Supra note 27.

[12][36] G.R. No. 182418, May 8, 2009, 587 SCRA 809.

[13][37] G.R. No. 177220, April 24, 2009, 586 SCRA 647.

[14][38] G.R. No. 181545, October 8, 2008, 568 SCRA 273.

[15][39] People v. Sanchez, G.R. No. 175832, October 15, 2008, 569 SCRA 194, 212.

[16][40] See People v. Almorfe, G.R. No. 181831, March 29, 2010.

[17][41] People v. de Guzman, G.R. No. 186498, March 26, 2010.

[18][42] Supra note 39, citing People v. Kimura, 428 SCRA 51 (2004) and Lopez v. People, 553 SCRA 619 (2008).

[19][43] G.R. No. 172953, April 30, 2008, 553 SCRA 619, 632.

[20][44] Supra note 28.

[21][45] See People v. Coreche, G.R. No. 182528, August 14, 2009, 596 SCRA 350, 364.

[22][46] Supra note 43, at 623.

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