The People of the Philippines vs. Diego Flores y Casero | G.R. No. 246471, June 16, 2020

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Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

FIRST DIVISION

G.R. No. 246471 | June 16, 2020

The People of the Philippines, Plaintiff-appellee,

vs.

Diego Flores y Casero, Accused-appellant.

D E C I S I O N

LOPEZ, J.:

The conviction of Diego Flores for illegal sale of dangerous drugs is the subject of review in this appeal assailing the Court of Appeal s’ Decision[1] dated May 31, 2018 in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 08634, which affirmed the findings of the Regional Trial Court.


ANTECEDENTS


On October 12, 2009, the Muntinlupa City Police Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Group planned a buy-bust operation against Diego based on the information and surveillance report that he is selling shabu to jeepney drivers. After the briefing, PO1 Michael Leal was designated as the poseur-buyer, PO3 Agosto Enrile as back-up, and the other team members as perimeter guards. The following day, the confidential informant arranged a meeting in Diego’s house at #355 National Road, Barangay Alabang, Muntinlupa City. The entrapment team went to the target area. Thereat, the informant introduced PO1 Leal to Diego who greeted them “Kanina ko pa kayo inaantay pare, siya ba yung sinabi mo sa akin na kumpare mo na iiskor?” The confidential informant replied, “Oo pare siya nga.” Diego then showed a gun and said “Huwag kayo mag-alala safe kayo dito, takot sila sa akin dito.”[2]

Thereafter, PO1 Leal gave Diego the boodle money.[3] Upon receipt of the payment, Diego handed to PO1 Leal a plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance. At that moment, PO1 Leal drew his gun and introduced himself as a police officer. The rest of the entrapment team rushed in. They arrested Diego and recovered from him a gun, three ammunitions and the buy-bust money. Immediately, the team proceeded to the police station because a crowd was forming which included Diego’s relatives and their presence might cause a commotion. At the station, PO1 Leal marked the sachet with Diego’s initials.[4] The police officers conducted an inventory and photograph of the seized items witnessed by a representative from the City Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Office.[5]

Afterwards, PO1 Leal and PO3 Enrile personally delivered the marked item to Ma. Victoria Meman, a non-uniformed personnel of the SPD Crime Laboratory Office, who then gave it to the forensic chemist PCI Abraham Verde Tecson.[6] After examination, the substance tested positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride.[7] PCI Tecson then marked the sachet with his initials8 and handed it to the evidence custodian PO3 Aires Abian for safekeeping. Accordingly, Diego was charged with violation of Section 5, Article II of R.A. No. 9165 before the Regional Trial Court docketed as Criminal Case No. 09-681, to wit:

That on or about 13th day of October, 2009 around 12:00 [p.m.], in the City of Muntinlupa, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, [Flores], not being authorized by law, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously sell, trade, deliver and give away to another a white crystalline substance which when tested is (sic) positive for Methamphetamine Hydrochloride, [a] dangerous drug, weighing 0.03 grams, contained in a heat transparent plastic sachet in violation of the above-cited law.[9]

Diego denied the accusation and claimed that he was on his way to work when a police mobile parked beside him. Suddenly, three armed men in civilian clothes alighted and pointed their guns at him. One of them searched him but found nothing. Yet, he was forcibly brought to the police station and was interrogated. The person who earlier searched him demanded P5,000.00 in exchange for his liberty. Unable to produce the money, they detained him and was placed under inquest proceedings.[10]

On August 23, 2016, the RTC convicted Diego of illegal sale of dangerous drugs. It gave credence to the prosecution’s version as to the transaction that transpired between Diego and the poseur-buyer.[11] On May 31, 2018, the Court of Appeals affirmed the RTC’s findings and ruled that the prosecution presented an unbroken chain of custody of dangerous drugs.[12]


RULING


We acquit.

In illegal sale of dangerous drugs, the contraband itself constitutes the very corpus delicti of the offense and the fact of its existence is vital to a judgment of conviction.[13] Thus, it is essential to ensure that the substance recovered from the accused is the same substance offered in court.[14] Indeed, the prosecution must satisfactorily establish the movement and custody of the seized drug through the following links: (1) the confiscation and marking of the specimen seized from the accused by the apprehending officer; (2) the turnover of the seized item by the apprehending officer to the investigating officer; (3) the investigating officer’s turnover of the specimen to the forensic chemist for examination; and, (4) the submission of the item by the forensic chemist to the court.[15] Here, the records reveal a broken chain of custody.

Notably, the alleged crime happened before R.A. No. 10640[16]  amended R.A. No. 9165. Thus, the original provisions of Section 21 and its IRR shall apply, to wit:

Section 21, paragraph l, Article II of RA 9165]

(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.

[Section 21(a), Article II of the IRR of RA 9165]
(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 or 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 property preserved by the apprehending officer/team, shall not render void and invalid such seizures of and custody over said items. (Emphasis Supplied.)

In earlier cases, this Court ruled that the deviation from the standard procedure in Section 21 dismally compromises the evidence, unless (1) such non-compliance was under justifiable grounds; and (2) the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending team.[17] Later, we emphasized the importance of the presence of the three insulating witnesses during the physical inventory and the photograph of the seized items.[18] In People v. Lim,[19] it was explained that in case the presence of any or all the insulating witnesses was not obtained, the prosecution must allege and prove not only the reasons for their absence, but also the fact that earnest efforts were made to secure their attendance, thus:

It is well to note that the absence of these required witnesses does not per se render the confiscated items inadmissible. However, a justifiable reason for such failure or a showing of any genuine and sufficient effort to secure the required witnesses under Section 21 of RA 9165 must be adduced. In People v. Umpiang, the Court held that the prosecution must show that earnest efforts were employed in contacting  the representatives enumerated under the law tor “a sheer statement that representatives were unavailable without so much as an explanation on whether serious attempts were employed to look for other representatives, given the circumstances is to be regarded as a flimsy excuse.” Verily, mere statements of unavailability, absent actual serious attempts to contact the required witnesses are unacceptable as justified grounds for noncompliance. 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 full well that they would have to strictly comply with the set procedure prescribed in Section 21 of RA 9165. As such, police officers are compelled not only to state reasons for their non-compliance, but must in fact, al so convince the Court that they exerted earnest efforts to comply with the mandated procedure, and that  under  the given  circumstances, their actions were reasonable. (Emphasis in the original)

Indeed, the presence of the insulating witnesses is the first requirement to ensure the preservation of the identity and evidentiary value of the seized drugs.[20] In People v. Caray,[21]  we ruled that the corpus delicti cannot be deemed preserved absent any acceptable explanation for the deviation from the procedural requirements of the chain of custody rule. Similarly, in Matabilas v. People,[22] sheer statements of unavailability of the insulating witnesses, without actual serious attempt to contact them, cannot justify non-compliance.

In this case, we acknowledge that there was a threat to the security of the entrapment team which forced them to immediately proceed to the nearest police station. At that time, a crowd was forming and their presence might cause a commotion. Moreover, Diego could potentially resist arrest with help from his relatives. Nevertheless, the absence of the required insulating witnesses during the inventory and photograph of the seized items puts serious doubt as to the integrity of the chain of custody. Here, there was no representative from the media and the Department of Justice, and any elected public official. Admittedly, the buy-bust team no longer waited for the required witnesses so they can timely deliver the suspected drugs to the crime laboratory. Thus, a representative from the City Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Office signed the inventory. This is unacceptable considering that members of the buy-bust team have ample opportunity to prepare and make necessary arrangements to observe the rigidities of Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165.[23] This non-compliance of the required procedure created a serious gap in the chain of custody.

Lastly, it must be stressed that while the law enforcers enjoy the presumption of regularity in the performance of their duties, this presumption cannot prevail over the constitutional right of the accused to be presumed innocent and it cannot by itself constitute proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The presumption of regularity is disputable and cannot be regarded as binding truth. [24] Indeed, when the performance of duty is tainted with irregularities, such presumption is effectively destroyed.[25]

We reiterate that the provisions of Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 embody the constitutional aim to prevent the imprisonment of an innocent man. The Court cannot tolerate the lax approach of law enforcers in handling the very corpus delicti of the crime. Hence, Diego must be acquitted of the charge against him given the prosecution’s failure to prove an unbroken chain of custody.

FOR THESE REASONS, the appeal is GRANTED. The Court of Appeals’ Decision dated May 31, 2018 in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 08634 is REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Diego Flores Casero is ACQUITTED in Criminal Case No. 09-681 and is ORDERED IMMEDIATELY RELEASED from detention, unless he is being lawfully held for another cause. Let entry of judgment be issued immediately.

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

SO ORDERED.

Peralta, C.J., (Chairperson), Caguioa, Reyes, J., Jr., and Lazaro-Javier, JJ., concur.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Rollo, pp. 3-18. Penned by Associate Justice Ramon M. Bato, Jr. and concurred in by Associate Justices Ramon A. Cruz and Pablito A . Perez.

[2] Id., pp. 5-6.

[3] The boodle money is a P200.00 bill with initials “ML.”

[4] PO1 Leal marked the plastic sachet Diego’s initials “DF.”

[5] Id., pp. 6-7.

[6] Id. at 7.

[7] Physical Science Report No. D-475-09S.

[8] PCI Tecson sealed the item, marked it with “D-475-09S” and his initials “AVT”.

[9] Rollo, p. 3.

[10] Id. at 7-8.

[11] CA rollo, pp. 47-68. The RTC Decision disposed as follows:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the [RTC) finds [Flores] GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 5, Article II of R. A. No. 9165 and hereby sentences him to life imprisonment and a fine of Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00).

The preventive imprisonment undergone by [Flores] shall be credited in his favor. The Branch Clerk of Court is directed to turn-over the methamphetamine hydrochloride subject of the case to [PDEA] for proper disposition.

SO ORDERED.

[12] Rollo, pp. 17-1 8. The CA disposed as follows:

On May 31, 2018, the CA rendered the Assailed Decision denying the appeal for lack of merit and affirming the RTC Decision. The appellate court held that Flores was not able discharge his burden of proving that the evidence was tampered, thus, failing to overcome the presumption of regularity in the discharge of duties of the police officers. The dispositive portion reads:

WHEREFORE, the Appeal is DENIED for lack of merit. The Decision dated August 23, 2016 of the Regional Trial Court of Muntinlupa City, Branch 203 in Criminal Case No. 09-681 is hereby AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

[13] People of the Philippines v. Partoza, G.R. No. 182418, May 8, 2009.

[14] People v. Ismael, G.R. No. 208093, February 20, 2017.

[15] People v. Bugtong, G.R. No. 220451, February 26, 2018.

[16] R.A. No. 10640 took effect on July 23, 2014. See OCA Circular No. 77-2015 dated April 23, 2015. As amended, it is now mandated that the conduct of physical inventory and photograph of the seized items must be in the presence or (1) the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, (2) with an elected public official and (3) a representative or the National Prosecution Service or the media who shall sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.

[17] People v. Dela Cruz, G.R. No. 177222. October 29, 2008, citing People v. Orteza, G.R. No. 173501, July 31, 2007, 528 SCRA 750;  People v. Nazareno, G.R. No. 174771, September 11, 2007, 532 SCRA 630; People v. Santos, Jr., G.R. No. 175593, October 17, 2007, 536 SCRA 489.

[18] People v. Rodriguez, G.R. No. 233535, July 1, 2019.

[19] G.R. No. 231989, September 4, 2018.

[20] People v. Flores, G.R. No. 241261, July 29, 2019; People v. Rodriguez, G.R. No. 233535, July 1, 2019; and People v. Maralit, G.R. No. 232381,  August 1, 2018.

[21] G.R. No. 245391, September 11, 2019.

[22] G.R. No. 243615, November 11, 2019.

[23] People v. Patacsil, G.R. No. 234052, August 6, 2018.

[24] People v. Cañete, 433 Phil. 781, 794 ( 2002): and Lopez v. People, G.R. No. 172953, April 30, 2008.

[25] People v. Dela Cruz, G.R . No. 181545, October 8, 2008