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G.R. No. 188653, January 29, 2014 - LITO LOPEZ, Petitioner, v. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Respondent.

G.R. No. 188653, January 29, 2014 - LITO LOPEZ, Petitioner, v. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Respondent.

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

SECOND DIVISION

G.R. No. 188653, January 29, 2014

LITO LOPEZ, Petitioner, v. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

PEREZ, J.:

Assailed in this petition is the Decision1 of the Court of Appeals affirming the conviction of petitioner Lito Lopez by the Regional Trial Court (RTC)2 in Criminal Case No. T–3476, which found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt of illegal possession of dangerous drugs.

Petitioner was charged with violation of Section 16, Article III of Republic Act No. 6425, in an Information which reads:

That on or about the 31st day of July, 2000, at 7:30 o’clock in the evening, more or less, at Purok 1, Brgy. Baranghawon, Municipality of Tabaco, Province of Albay, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above–named accused, with intent to possess and violate the law, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and criminally have in his possession and control 0.0849 gram of Methamphetamine Hydrochloride, commonly known as “shabu” , a regulated drug contained in four (4) small transparent packets; four (4) pieces of aluminum foil and one (1) transparent plastic packet, both containing “shabu” residue, without authority, license or permit from the government or its duly authorized representatives.3

Upon arraignment, petitioner pleaded not guilty to the crime charged.

The witnesses for the prosecution testified on the following facts:

Senior Police Officer 4 Benito Bognalos (SPO4 Bognalos) was the team leader of the group of police officers assigned to implement the search warrant issued by Judge Arsenio Base of the Municipal Trial Court of Tabaco, Albay, on the house of petitioner located at Purok 1, Barangay Baranghawon, Tabaco, Albay.  The search group was composed of SPO3 Domingo Borigas (SPO3 Borigas), PO3 Carlos Desuasido (PO3 Desuasido), and PO3 Ferdinand Telado (PO3 Telado) while another group, consisting of SPO1 Venancio Rolda, PO3 Cesar Templonuevo and SPO2 Melchor Codornes, were tasked to secure the perimeter area.  SPO4 Bognalos contacted the barangay officials to ask for assistance in the conduct of the search.

At around 7:30 p.m. of 31 July 2000, the search team, together with three (3) barangay officials, went to the house of petitioner and presented the search warrant to him.  He eventually relented to the conduct of search.  PO3 Desuasido seized a piece of folded paper containing four (4) ¼ x ½ inch transparent plastic packets of white powder, two (2) 2x1–1/2 inch plastic sachets containing white powder, and a crystal–like stone measuring 2 inches in contoured diameter concealed in the kitchen.4   SPO3 Borigas found two (2) 2x1–1/2 inch plastic sachets containing white powder in the bathroom. PO3 Telado seized one (1) ¼ x ½ inch plastic packet containing suspected residue of shabu inside the master’s bedroom.  PO3 Telado also recovered one (1) 1x1–1/2 inch plastic sachet containing suspected residue of shabu, four aluminum rolls, and a piece of paper partly burned at one end.5 Barangay Captain Angeles Brutas witnessed the conduct by the policemen of the search in petitioner’s kitchen and saw how the plastic sachets containing the suspected shabu were recovered.6   Barangay Kagawad Leticia Bongon also saw how the policemen found outside the house a white, round, hard and “tawas–like” object in the kitchen and aluminum foils, which were allegedly used as shabu paraphernalia.7   After the search, the seized items were photographed and a seizure receipt, properly acknowledged by petitioner, was issued.  Petitioner was then brought to the police station while the seized plastic sachets were brought by the Chief of Police to the Legazpi City Crime Laboratory for examination.8cralawlawlibrary

Forensic Chemist Police Superintendent Lorlie Arroyo in her Chemistry Report No. D–111–2000,9 found that the seized plastic sachets are positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu.  She likewise testified on her findings.

Testifying on his own behalf, petitioner narrated that at exactly 7:30 p.m. on 31 July 2000, more than ten (10) policemen barged into his house.  Petitioner initially asked them for their purpose and he was told that they had a search warrant.  Petitioner was not able to take a good look at the search warrant because one Butch Gonzales pushed him aside while the others entered his house.  The policemen searched different parts of his house while he was made to sit in the living room by PO3 Desuasido.  From where he was seated, he could not see what was happening inside the kitchen or in the bedroom, where policemen allegedly recovered plastic sachets containing shabu.  He was asked to sign a seizure receipt but refused to do so.  After the search, he was taken into custody and brought to the police station.10   Salvacion Posadas, petitioner’s former common–law partner, was also inside petitioner’s house at the time of the search.  She corroborated petitioner’s testimony that they were not able to witness the search because they were made to sit in the living room.  She also claimed that the barangay officials did not accompany the policemen in the search inside the kitchen and bedroom.11cralawred

On 23 May 2007, the RTC convicted petitioner of the charge of illegal possession of shabu in violation of Section 16, Article III of Republic Act No. 6425.

The dispositive portion reads:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered, finding accused Lito Lopez GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of Violation of Section 16, Article III, Republic Act 6425 and considering the quantity of the methamphetamine hydrochloride seized from the accused, which is 0.0849 gram, and applying the Indeterminate Sentence Law, this Court hereby sentences him to suffer an indeterminate penalty of from four (4) months and one (1) day of arresto mayor in its medium period as minimum, to three (3) years of prision correccional in its medium period as maximum.

The Methamphetamine Hydrochloride, subject matter of this case is forfeited in favor of the government, and the Branch Clerk of Court is directed to turn over the same to the Dangerous Drugs Board for proper disposition, upon finality of this decision.12

In convicting petitioner of illegal possession of shabu, the trial court lent more credence to the evidence of the prosecution.  The trial court held that the prosecution was able to prove all elements of the crime charged, more particularly, that petitioner was in possession of the shabu.  The trial court dismissed petitioner’s claim that the seized shabu was planted by the policemen by explaining that these police officers have no ill–motive to falsely testify against petitioner.

In his Brief filed before the Court of Appeals, petitioner contended that there was an irregularity in the conduct of the search when it was witnessed only by barangay officials while petitioner’s view from the living room was blocked by a concrete wall partition.  Petitioner thus advanced the possibility of indiscriminate search and planting of evidence.  Petitioner also questioned the time when the search was conducted.  Petitioner pointed out that one Butch Gonzales, who is not a part of the search team, participated in the search and was able to seize a plastic sachet allegedly containing shabu.  Petitioner averred that the seized items were not delivered to the court which issued the warrant.  In addition, petitioner claimed that the police officers did not properly observe the chain of custody rule, such that the pieces of evidence were not properly marked in the house of petitioner but were marked at the police station.

On 31 March 2009, the Court of Appeals affirmed the RTC’s Decision convicting petitioner of illegal possession of shabu.  The appellate court upheld the valid implementation of the search warrant by police officers.  According to the appellate court, petitioner was present during the search and his movement was not restricted as he was free to follow the policemen conducting the search.  The appellate court considered the time of the search as reasonable.  With respect to the argument that the seized items were not delivered to the court, the appellate court observed that said issue was not raised during trial, hence, the objection is deemed waived.

Petitioner filed the instant petition for review on certiorari zeroing in on the argument that the identity and integrity of the seized items were not proven beyond reasonable doubt.  Petitioner insists that the records were bereft of evidence showing every link in the chain of custody of the seized shabu.  Petitioner points out that the person in the crime laboratory who allegedly handled the seized items was not presented during the trial and there was no testimony made on the disposition of the alleged shabu after its examination by the forensic chemist and prior to its presentation in court.  Petitioner also notes that the alleged seized drugs were not immediately marked at the time of the alleged seizure.

In the prosecution of drug cases, it is of paramount importance that the existence of the drug, the corpus delicti of the crime, be established beyond doubt.  To successfully prosecute a case involving illegal drugs, the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti must definitely be shown to have been preserved.  This requirement necessarily arises from the illegal drug’s unique characteristic that renders it indistinct, not readily identifiable, and easily open to tampering, alteration or substitution either by accident or otherwise. Thus, 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 accused–petitioner.13

In both cases of illegal sale and illegal possession of dangerous drugs, the prosecution must show the chain of custody over the dangerous drug in order to establish the corpus delicti, which is the dangerous drug itself.14    The chain of custody rule comes into play as a mode of authenticating the seized illegal drug as evidence.  It includes testimony about every link in the chain, from the moment the item was picked up to the time it is offered into evidence, in such a way that every person who touched the exhibit 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.  These witnesses would then describe the precautions taken to ensure that there had been no change in the condition of the item and no opportunity for someone not in the chain to have possession of the same. Indeed, it is from the testimony of every witness who handled the evidence from which a reliable assurance can be derived that the evidence presented in court is one and the same as that seized from the accused.15   This step initiates the process of protecting innocent persons from dubious and concocted searches, and of protecting as well the apprehending officers from harassment suits based on planting of evidence and on allegations of robbery or theft.16

The rule requires that the marking of the seized items should be done in the presence of the apprehended violator and immediately upon confiscation to ensure that they are the same items that enter the chain and are eventually the ones offered in evidence.17

Marking after seizure is the starting point in the custodial link, thus it is vital that the seized contraband is immediately marked because succeeding handlers of the specimens will use the markings as reference. The marking of the evidence serves to separate the marked evidence from the corpus of all other similar or related evidence from the time they are seized from the accused until they are disposed at the end of criminal proceedings, obviating switching, “planting,” or contamination of evidence.18

According to PO3 Telado, all the seized items were marked only at the police station.  But when asked who put the markings, PO3 Telado surmised that it was PO3 Desuasido.19   Aside from PO3 Telado, no other witnesses testified on the supposed markings.  PO3 Desuasido was not asked on the witness stand about the markings.  When cross–examined how the seized items were handled, SP04 Bognalos testified:

Q:
After you have searched and found these sachets containing “Shabu” what did you and your party do?
   
A:
It was photographed, given seizure receipt properly acknowledged by the respondent. And later on for proper disposition and then Lito Lopez was brought to the police station for proper booking and further investigation.
   
Q:
You said these recovered sachets found in the house of the accused were photographed. Do you have copies of these photographs?
   
A:
No, sir.
   
Q:
Why?
   
A:
Because it was submitted to the Municipal Trial Court, Tabaco together with the filing of the case.
   
Q:
What did you do with these seized sachets containing “Shabu” after the same was brought to the police station?
   
A:
It was sent to the Legazpi City Crime Laboratory for proper examination.20

There are occasions when the chain of custody rule is relaxed such as when the marking of the seized items immediately after seizure and confiscation is allowed to be undertaken at the police station rather than at the place of arrest for as long as it is done in the presence of an accused in illegal drugs cases.21   However, even a less–than–stringent application of the requirement would not suffice to sustain the conviction in this case.  There was no categorical statement from any of the prosecution witnesses that markings were made, much less immediately upon confiscation of the seized items.  There was also no showing that markings were made in the presence of the accused in this case.

Evidently, there is an irregularity in the first link of the chain of custody.

We have consistently held that failure of the authorities to immediately mark the seized drugs raises reasonable doubt on the authenticity of the corpus delicti and suffices to rebut the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties.  Failure to mark the drugs immediately after they were seized from the accused casts doubt on the prosecution evidence, warranting acquittal on reasonable doubt.22

Furthermore, the Chemistry Report, containing a description of the items seized, does not show or make any mention of any markings made on all the items seized.  As a matter of fact, during the trial, PO3 Desuasido seemingly could not readily identify the plastic sachets he allegedly seized inside petitioner’s house, thus:

Q: If I show to you the four (4) plastic sachets containing “shabu” will you be able to recognize it?
   
ATTY. BROTAMONTE:
  Same objection. No basis.
   
COURT:
  Let the witness answer.
   
PROSECUTOR PIFANO:
Q: Showing to you [these] plastic sachets. Kindly examine the same and tell the court if these were the ones that were found in the house of the accused?
   
WITNESS:
A: If it were the ones that came from the crime laboratory then it is, sir.23

On the other hand, PO3 Telado identified the plastic sachets he seized based only on their sizes, to wit:

Q:
Now, you identified the supposed sachets that you had found in the house of the accused. What made you identify them today as the ones that you had found?
   
A:
Because I can distinctly remember those aluminum foils.
   
Q:
Okay. No, I’m referring to the sachets?
   
A:
I can remember it because of the size.
   
Q:
Of course, you will agree with me that you did not first measure the size of those two (2) sachets at that time before you actually identified them today?
   
A:
Yes, sir.
   
Q:
How were you able to identify today that the aluminum foils shown to you by the Fiscal were the ones used as supposedly found in the house of the accused?
   
A:
Because it’s cr[u]mpled and folded.
   
ATTY. BROTAMONTE:
Q:
Was that your only basis as you have identified it today?
   
WITNESS:
A:
Yes, sir.24


Even the evidence presented in court were not identified with certainty as the ones which were seized by the police officers.

As already stated, it is the unique characteristic of dangerous and illegal drugs which renders imperative strict compliance with the prescribed measures to be observed during and after the seizure of dangerous drugs and related paraphernalia, during the custody and transfer thereof for examination, and at all times up to their presentation in court.25cralawred

The conflicting testimonies of the police officers and lack of evidence lead to a reasonable conclusion that no markings were actually made on the seized items.  It is also worth mentioning that the photographs which the prosecution witnesses claim to have been taken after the seizure do not appear on the records nor were they presented or offered as evidence.

A substantial gap in the chain of custody renders the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti dubious.

We ruled in People v. Kamad26 that the links that must be established in the chain of custody in a buy–bust situation are: first, the seizure and marking, if practicable, of the illegal drug recovered from the accused by the apprehending officer; second, the turnover of the illegal drug seized by the apprehending officer to the investigating officer; third, the turnover by the investigating officer of the illegal drug to the forensic chemist for laboratory examination; and fourth, the turnover and submission of the marked illegal drug seized from the forensic chemist to the court.27

There were indeed substantial gaps in the chain of custody from the initial stage with the apparent lack of markings.  Upon confiscation of the shabu, the prosecution witnesses never recounted which police officer had initial control and custody upon their confiscation and while in transit.  At the police station, nobody witnessed if and how the seized items were marked.  SPO4 Bognalos alleged that it was the Chief of Police who forwarded the seized sachets to the crime laboratory,28 while PO3 Telado intimated that it was the investigator who turned them over to the crime laboratory.  Their records were likewise bereft of any detail as to who exercised custody and possession of the seized items after their chemical examination and before they were offered as evidence in court.  All these weak links in the chain of custody significantly affected the integrity of the items seized, which in turn, created a reasonable doubt on the guilt of the accused.

In this light, we are constrained to acquit petitioner on reasonable doubt.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the 31 March 2009 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA–G.R. CR No. 30939 affirming the conviction by the Regional Trial Court, Branch 17, Tabaco City, in Criminal Case No. T–3476 for illegal possession of shabu under Section 16, Article III of Republic Act No. 6425, is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE.  Petitioner LITO LOPEZ is ACQUITTED and ordered immediately RELEASED from detention, unless he is confined for any other lawful cause.

The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is DIRECTED to IMPLEMENT this Decision and to report to this Court the action taken hereon within five (5) days from receipt.ChanRoblesVirtualawlibrary

SO ORDERED.

Carpio, J., (Chairperson), Brion, Del Castillo, and Perlas–Bernabe, JJ., concur


Endnotes:


1 Penned by Associate Justice Jose Catral Mendoza (now a member of this Court) with Associate Justices Portia Aliño–Hormachuelos and Ramon M. Bato, Jr., concurring.  Rollo, pp. 88–101.

2 Presided by Judge Arnulfo B. Cabredo.  Id. at 27–42.

3 Records, p. 36.

4 TSN, 20 August 2003, pp. 8–10.

5 TSN, 2 October 2003, pp. 10–12.

6 TSN, 29 June 2005, pp. 4–5.

7 TSN, 29 September 2005, pp. 6–8.

8 TSN, 18 April 2002, pp. 4–8.

9 Records, p. 7.

10 TSN, 8 June 2006, pp. 4–11.

11 TSN, 1 March 2006, pp. 4–10.

12Rollo, pp. 41–42.

13People v. Denoman, G.R. No. 171732, 14 August 2009, 596 SCRA 257, 267 citing People v. Robles, G.R. No. 177220, 24 April 2009, 586 SCRA 647, 654.

14People v. Somoza, G.R. No. 197250, 17 July 2013 citing People v. Remigio, G.R. No. 189277, 5 December 2012, 687 SCRA 336, 347.

15Lopez v. People, G.R. No. 184037, 29 September 2009, 601 SCRA 316, 326–327 citing Catuiran v. People, G.R. No. 175647, 8 May 2009, 587 SCRA 567, 576–577.

16People v. Sanchez, G.R. No. 175832, 15 October 2008, 569 SCRA 194, 218–219.

17 Id.

18People v. Guzon, G.R. No. 199901, 9 October 2013; People v. Salonga, G.R. No. 194948, 2 September 2013 citing People v. Coreche, G.R. No. 182528, 14 August 2009, 596 SCRA 350, 357.

19   TSN, 2 October 2003, pp. 27–28.

20 TSN, 18 April 2002, p. 8.

21People v. Resurreccion, G.R. No. 186380, 12 October 2009, 603 SCRA 510, 520.

22People v. Umipang, G.R. No. 190321, 25 April 2012, 671 SCRA 324, 339; San Juan v. People, G.R. No. 177191, 30 May 2011, 649 SCRA 300, 316–317; People v. Coreche, supra note 18 at 357–358.

23 TSN, 20 August 2003, pp. 11–12.

24 TSN, 2 October 2003, pp. 28–29.

25People v. Nacua, G.R. No. 200165, 30 January 2013, 689 SCRA 819, 832 citing People v. Magpayo, G.R. No. 187069, 20 October 2010, 634 SCRA 441, 449.

26 G.R. No. 174198, 19 January 2010, 610 SCRA 295.

27 Id. at 307–308.

28 TSN, 18 April 2002, p. 8.
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