MANILA - The Supreme Court has acquitted 3 drug suspects because of failure of the prosecution to explain non-compliance with the chain of custody requirements in handling seized illegal drugs.
In a decision dated January 17, 2019, the SC Third Division acquitted Emmanuel Oliva, accused of selling and possessing illegal drugs, as well as Bernardo Barangot and Mark Angelo Manalastas, both accused of illegal drug possession.
The tribunal said the prosecution failed to explain why the police conducted an inventory of the seized illegal drugs without the presence of a representative from the media or the Department of Justice.
Police caught Oliva in a buy-bust operation in Makati City on January 23, 2015 selling 0.06 gram of shabu for P500 to an operative. Another sachet with 0.1 gram of shabu was also recovered in his possession.
Barangot and Manalastas were also arrested for having 0.05 and 0.03 gram of shabu each in their possession.
All substances tested positive for shabu but only a barangay official was present during the inventory.
Under Section 21 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, law enforcement authorities are required to conduct a physical inventory and take photos of the recovered illegal substances in the presence of the accused, representatives from the media and the DOJ, and any elected official.
This is known as the “chain of custody” requirement meant to ensure admissibility of evidence in court.
A 2014 amendment to the law relaxed the rule by requiring only the presence of either a media practitioner or DOJ representative during the inventory.
In both versions of the law, the authorities are allowed to justify non-compliance with the requirement, as long as it can be shown that the integrity and evidentiary value of the confiscated items are properly preserved.
In reversing the decisions of the Makati regional trial court and the Court of Appeals convicting the 3 accused, the high court faulted the prosecution for not complying with the chain of custody requirements.
“[T]he absence of a representative of the National Prosecution Service or the media during the inventory of the seized items was not justifiably explained by the prosecution. A review of the Transcript of the Stenographic Notes does not yield any testimony from the arresting officers as to the reason why there was no representative from the DOJ or the media,” the SC said.
“The only one present to witness the inventory and the marking was an elected official, Barangay Captain Evelyn Villamor. Neither was there any testimony to show that any attempt was made to secure the presence of the required witness,” it added.
Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, who penned the decision, said the prosecution bears the burden of proof to show valid cause for deviating from the rule.
“Its failure to follow the mandated procedure must be adequately explained and must be proven as a fact in accordance with the rule on evidence. The rules require that the apprehending officers do not simply mention a justifiable ground, but also clearly state this ground in their sworn affidavit, coupled with a statement on the steps they took to preserve the integrity of the seized items,” he said.
Peralta said a strict adherence to the requirements under section 21 of the law is required “where the quantity of illegal drugs seized is minuscule since it is highly susceptible to planting, tampering, or alteration.”
The total amount of shabu recovered from the accused only amounted to 0.24 gram.
STRICTER CHAIN OF CUSTODY REQUIREMENT COMPLIANCE
Peralta also wrote the September 2018 ruling acquitting a drug suspect caught in possession of 0.02 gram of shabu due to the absence of any of the required witnesses during inventory.
In that ruling, the SC laid down a 4-point mandatory policy in drugs cases to weed out poorly-built cases.
First, the apprehending officers must state compliance with the chain of custody requirements under section 21 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act and its implementing rules and regulations.
Second, in case of non-compliance, the apprehending officers must explain why they failed to comply and indicate steps taken to preserve the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items.
Third, if there is no justification, the investigating prosecutor must not immediately file the case before the court but must refer the case for further preliminary investigation to determine existence of probable cause.
And fourth, if the case had been filed in court despite the lack of justification, the court may exercise its discretion to either refuse to issue a commitment order or warrant of arrest, or dismiss the case outright for lack of probable cause.
In both the latest and the September rulings, the acts were committed prior to the launch of the government’s war on drugs in 2016.