[G.R. NO. 180508 : September 4, 2009]
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Appellee, v. ANTONIO RAMOS Y VIRAY, Appellant.
D E C I S I O N
CARPIO MORALES, J.:
Assailed by way of appeal is the August 7, 2007 Decision1 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR.-H.C. No. 02241 which affirmed the March 24, 2006 Decision of Branch 135 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Makati City in Criminal Case Nos. 05-1712 to 05-1713 convicting Antonio Ramos y Viray alias Dinol (appellant) for violating Sections 5 and 11, Article II of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9165 (the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002) - selling 0.01 gram and possessing 0.05 gram of shabu, respectively.
The inculpatory portions of the two separate Informations both dated September 14, 2005 indicting appellant read:
Crim. Case No. 051712
That on or about the 13th day of September 2005, in the City of Makati Philippines and a place within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, not being lawfully authorized to possess any dangerous drug and without the corresponding license or prescription did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously sell, distribute and transport zero point zero one (0.01) gram of Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride which is a dangerous drug in consideration of the amount of two hundred (Php 200.00) pesos.2 (Underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary
Crim. Case No. 051713
That on or about the 13th day of September 2005, in the City of Makati Philippines, a place within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, not being lawfully authorized to possess any dangerous drug and without the corresponding license or prescription, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously have in his possession ZERO POINT ZERO FIVE (0.05) grams of Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride which is a dangerous drug.3 (Underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary
At the pre-trial conference, the defense admitted, among other things, the execution and authenticity of the Physical Science Reports, thus dispensing with the testimony of the Forensic Chemist.4
Based on the documentary evidence and collective testimonies of its two witnesses, Noel Pulido (Pulido),5 an operative of the Makati Anti Drug Abuse Council (MADAC), and PO2 Ronnie Aseboque (PO2 Aseboque),6 a member of the Makati City Police Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Force (SAID-SOTF), the prosecution established the following version:
On September 10, 2005, Pulido, together with other operatives of the MADAC, conducted a surveillance operation on the activities of appellant whose name appeared in the Drug Watch List of Barangay Pitogo, Makati City where he was observed to be selling shabu to tricycle drivers at the tricycle terminal along Pitogo St., Guadalupe Nuevo, Makati City.
The positive result of surveillance operation led the Makati City Police SAID-SOTF to form a buy-bust team which PO3 Esterio Ruiz (PO3 Ruiz) headed, with Pulido and PO2 Aseboque as members. PO2 Aseboque, who was designated as the poseur-buyer, was given a one hundred peso bill bearing Serial No. EF951982, and two fifty peso bills bearing Serial Nos. GT851008 and FQ688087. The bills were pre-marked with PO2 Aseboque's initials "REA" on the lower left hand corner thereof. It was agreed that PO2 Aseboque's removal of a towel which was to be draped over his shoulder would signal that the buy-bust transaction was consummated.
The buy-bust team coordinated with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) which gave it operation Control Number NOC 1309-05-13.7
At around 6:35 p.m. of September 13, 2005, the buy-bust team, together with its "asset," repaired to a billiard hall along Camino de la Fe St., Barangay Guadalupe Nuevo where Pulido positioned himself across the street as the other members of the team positioned themselves nearby.
As the "asset" spotted appellant who was standing in front of the billiard hall, he, together with PO2 Aseboque, approached him and introduced PO2 Aseboque as a buyer. Appellant thereupon asked how much to which he (PO2 Aseboque) replied "Dalawang daan lang pare."
Appellant at once brought out a small yellow-colored tin case from which he took out one small heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing a white crystalline substance which he handed to PO2 Aseboque who in turn handed him the marked one hundred and two fifty peso bills. At that instant, PO2 Aseboque executed the pre-arranged signal, drawing the other team members to rush to the scene.
PO2 Aseboque then handcuffed appellant as he introduced himself as a police officer, and recovered from his right front pocket8 the yellow tin case which yielded two other plastic sachets also containing white crystalline substances. In the presence of appellant, he marked his initials "REA" on the plastic sachet subject of the sale, "REA 1" and "REA 2" on the two sachets retrieved from the tin case, and "REA 3" on the small yellow tin case.
With the seized items, appellant was brought for investigation to the Makati City Police SAID-SOTF where P/Supt. Marietto Valerio prepared a memorandum dated September 13, 20059 addressed to the Chief of the Chemistry Section of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Crime Laboratory in Makati City requesting for a laboratory examination of the substances contained in the three plastic sachets to determine the presence of shabu. Pulido and PO2 Aseboque later executed a Joint Affidavit of Arrest10 dated September 14, 2005 recounting the details of the buy-bust operation leading to appellant's arrest.
Upon receipt of the three sachets and tin case on September 13, 2005 at 7:35 p.m., Police Senior Inspector Sharon Lontoc Fabros, Forensic Chemical Officer of the Southern Police District Crime Laboratory Office conducted a laboratory examination thereof which disclosed the following findings, as recorded in Physical Science Report No. D-219-05S.11
A - One (1) small tin case with markings "REA 3" having three (3) heat-sealed transparent plastic sachets, containing white crystalline substance with the following markings and recorded net weights:
A-1 ("REA") = 0.01 gram
A-2 ("REA-1") = 0.03 gram
A-3 ("REA-2") = 0.02 gram
x x x
F I N D I N G S:
Qualitative examination conducted on the above-stated specimens A-1 through A-3 gave POSITIVE result to tests for the presence of Methylamphetamine hydrochloride, a dangerous drug. x x x
C O N C L U S I O N:
Specimens A-1 through A-3 contain Methylamphetamine hydrochloride, a dangerous drug. (Underlining supplied)
Denying the accusation, appellant12 gave the following version:
At around 6:45 p.m. of September 13, 2005, while he was walking along Camino Dela Fe Street, Guadalupe Nuevo heading towards his mother's house, he was suddenly grabbed from behind by five unidentified persons who poked a gun at him. Upon inquiring what his violation was, he was told that they were looking for someone named "Danny." He denied knowing any such individual, however. He was then handcuffed, forced into a Revo vehicle parked nearby, and brought to the police station.
At the police station, someone took out a small plastic sachet and a yellow tin can from a drawer, as another said "Sige tuluyan niyo na siya, ito na ebidensiya natin."
In fine, appellant denied the accusation and claimed that the evidence against him was "planted."
Cherry Clasara,13 a friend of appellant's sister, corroborated appellant's account of the circumstances under which he was accosted.
By Decision14 of March 24, 2006, the trial court found appellant guilty of both illegal sale and illegal possession of Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride or shabu, disposing as follows:
WHEREFORE, it appearing that the guilt of the accused ANTONIO RAMOS Y VIRAY was proven beyond reasonable doubt for violation of Sections 5 and 11, Article II of R.A. 9165, as principal, with no mitigating or aggravating circumstances, accused is hereby sentenced:
1. In Criminal Case No. 05-1712, to suffer life imprisonment, and to pay a fine of Five Hundred Thousand Pesos [P500,000.00];
2. In Criminal Case No. 05-1713, to suffer imprisonment for an indeterminate term of twelve  years and one  day, as minimum, to fourteen  years and eight  months, as maximum, and to pay a fine of Three Hundred Thousand Pesos [P300,000.00]; andcralawlibrary
3. To pay the costs.
Let the zero point zero one [0.01] gram, and the total of zero point zero five [0.05] gram of Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride be turned over to the PDEA for proper disposition.
SO ORDERED.15 (Underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary
On appeal, the Court of Appeals, by Decision of August 7, 2007, affirmed the trial court's decision, it holding that, contrary to appellant's claim, the policemen had duly complied with the procedure laid down in Section 21 (1), Article II of R.A. No. 9165 as evidenced by the testimony of PO2 Aseboque that an inventory of the seized items had been conducted; and that the failure of the law enforcers to strictly comply with the said provision, not being fatal, did not render appellant's arrest illegal nor the evidence against him inadmissible.16
In brushing aside his defense of frame-up, the appellate court noted that appellant failed to adduce evidence on the possible motive of the police officers to falsely charge him.
Hence, the present appeal.
The appeal is impressed with merit.
While the trial court's findings of fact are entitled to great weight and are not generally disturbed on appeal, especially where the appellate court is in complete accord therewith as in the present case, where facts of weight and substance have been overlooked, misapprehended or misapplied, such findings may be disturbed.17
On the issue of whether the law enforcement officers had observed the procedure laid down in Section 21 (1), Article II of R.A. No. 9165 - a requirement essential to preserving the integrity of the corpus delicti in these cases, the Court rules in the negative. On that score alone, appellant's acquittal is in order.
A buy-bust operation is a form of entrapment employed by peace officers to apprehend prohibited drug law violators in the act of committing a drug-related offense. Because of the built-in dangers of abuse that the operation entails, it is governed by specific procedures on the seizure and custody of drugs, separately from the general law procedures geared to ensure that the rights of people under criminal investigation and of the accused facing a criminal charge are safeguarded.18 People v. Tan19 mirrors these dangers and thus exhorts courts to be extra vigilant in trying drug cases:
[B]y the very nature of anti-narcotic operations, the need for entrapment procedures, the use of shady characters as informants, the ease with which sticks of marijuana or grams of heroin can be planted in the pockets or hands of unsuspecting provincial hicks, and the secrecy that inevitably shrouds all drug deals, the possibility of abuse is great. Thus, the courts have been exhorted to be extra vigilant in trying drug cases lest an innocent person is made to suffer the unusually severe penalties for drug offenses. (Underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary
The records indicate that the buy-bust team did not follow the outlined procedure on the inventory and photographing of the seized drugs, despite its mandatory character as indicated by the use of the word "shall." This is patent from PO2 Aseboque's testimony on cross-examination by the defense, viz:
ATTY. RONALD TAN:
Q: What did you do when you recovered those items, what did you do to those items?cralawred
PO2 RONNIE ASEBOQUE:
A: I put markings on those items on top of the hood of the Revo, sir.
Q: Did you make an inventory of those items that were recovered?cralawred
A: Our team leader made the inventory of the items that were recovered sir.
Q: Did your team leader make an inventory report for those items recovered?cralawred
A: I do not know if he was able to make an inventory report.
Q: You are aware of the provision of RA 9165, am I correct?cralawred
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Are you aware that there is a particular provision that after a buy-bust operation and you were able to recover illegal drugs from that person subject of your buy-bust, you are mandated to take photographs of those items that you took in the presence of the barangay official and presence of the accused?cralawred
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Did you do that, did you comply with that requirement in these cases?cralawred
A: We have the camera but I do not know if they were able to comply with that, sir.
Q: You have no knowledge?cralawred
A: I have no knowledge, sir.20 (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary
Parenthetically, the prosecution did not present team leader PO3 Ruiz to enlighten whether he accomplished an inventory report of the seized items. And it bears noting that PO2 Aseboque did not even know if a photograph of the items allegedly seized was taken.
Appellant's contention that the apprehending policemen were remiss in complying with the statutory requirements is thus well-taken.Ï‚Î·Î±Ã±rÎ¿blÎµÅ¡ Î½Î¹râ€ Ï…Î±l lÎ±Ï‰ lÎ¹brÎ±rÃ¿
The Court is of course mindful of its pronouncement in People v. Pringas21 that:
Non-compliance by the apprehending/buy-bust team with Section 21 is not fatal as long as there is justifiable ground therefor, and as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the confiscated/seized items, are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team. Its non-compliance will not render an accused's arrest illegal or the items seized/confiscated from him inadmissible. What is of utmost importance is the preservation of the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items, as the same would be utilized in the determination of the guilt or innocence of the accused. (Citation omitted, underscoring and emphasis supplied)
As earlier discussed, however, the prosecution had not substantiated PO2 Aseboque's claim that team leader PO3 Ruiz had made an inventory of the seized items, as he in fact, confessed not knowing whether said team leader had made an investigation report.
In fine, the failure of the police officers to comply with the procedure in the custody of seized drugs puts to doubt their origins,22 and negates any presumption of regularity accorded to acts undertaken by police officers in the pursuit of their official duties.23 Appellant's acquittal is thus in order.
WHEREFORE, the assailed decision of the Court of Appeals is REVERSED and SET ASIDE. For failure of the prosecution to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, appellant, Antonio Ramos y Viray, is ACQUITTED of the crimes charged.
Let a copy of this Decision be furnished the Director of the Bureau of Corrections, Muntinlupa City who is ORDERED to cause the immediate release of appellant, unless he is being lawfully held for another cause, and to inform this Court of action taken thereon within ten (10) days from notice.
|LUCAS P. BERSAMIN*|
* Additional member vice Justice Mariano C. Del Castillo, who took no part due to prior participation in the Court of Appeals.
1 Penned by Associate Justice Romeo F. Barza, with the concurrence of Associate Justices Mariano C. Del Castillo (now an Associate Justice of this Court) and Arcangelita M. Romilla-Lontok; CA rollo, pp. 66-76.
2 Records, p. 2.
3 Id. at 4.
4 Vide Pre-Trial Order, id. at 36.
5 TSN. November 7, 2005, pp. 3-16.
6 TSN, February 1, 2006, pp. 2-21.
7 Vide Certificate of Coordination, Exhibit "E," records, p. 76.
8 The records do not specify whether the pocket was a shirt or pant pocket.
9 Exhibits "B," records, p. 71.
10 Exhibits "A" to "A-1," id. at 69-70.
11 Exhibit "C," id. at 73.
12 TSN, February 3, 2006, pp. 6-19.
13 TSN, March 1, 2006, pp. 2-11.
14 Rendered by Judge Francisco B. Ibay; records, pp. 89-93.
15 Id. at 93.
16 Id. at 72-73.
17 Malillin v. People, G.R. No. 172953, April 30, 2008, 553 SCRA 619, 631.
18 People v. Sanchez, G.R. No. 175832, October 15, 2008, 569 SCRA 194, 208.
19 401 Phil. 259, 273 (2000), citing People v. Gireng, 311 Phil. 12 (1995) and People v. Pagaura, 334 Phil. 683 (1997).
20 TSN, February 1, 2006, pp. 21-22.
21 G.R. No. 175928, August 31, 2007, 531 SCRA 828, 842-843 citing People v. Sta. Maria, G.R. No. 171019, February 23, 2007, 516 SCRA 621.
22 Vide People v. Orteza, G.R. No. 173051, July 31, 2007, 528 SCRA 750, 758.
23 Vide People v. Santos, Jr., G.R. No. 175593, October 17, 2007, 536 SCRA 489, 505.