The Supreme Court (SC) has acquitted six persons, one of them a woman, of violations of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act for the failure of law enforcers to comply strictly with the handling of the seized illegal drugs provided for in the law.
In four separate resolutions made public last Dec. 17, the SC also ordered their release from jail within five days from receipt of the orders.
Ordered to be released “unless being held for any other reason” were Melchor B. Amante, Roxanne C. Guevarra, Glenn M. Ampaso, Joel B. Taub, Roderick E. Linihan, and Philip S. Camat.
Their convictions either for sale, possession, or use of prohibited drugs handed down by the trial courts were affirmed by the Court of Appeals, prompting them to file an appeal with the SC, which granted their petitions.
The SC stressed that in illegal drugs cases, the prosecutors have the burden not only of proving the elements of the crime but also the corpus delicti (body of the crime) itself. The prohibited drugs seized from suspects constitute the corpus delicti, it said.
“Prosecution establishes that the identity and integrity of the dangerous drugs were duly preserved in order to support a verdict of conviction. It must prove that the substance seized from accused-appellant is truly the substance offered in court as corpus delicti with the same unshakeable accuracy as that required to sustain a finding of guilt,” the high court ruled.
The SC cited Section 21 of Republic Act No. 9165, the dangerous drugs law, which provides that “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.”
“Simply put, to ensure the integrity of the seized drug item, the prosecution must establish each link in the chain of custody, namely: first, the seizure and marking 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 by the forensic chemist to the court,” it said.
On the requirement of witnesses in the inventory of the seized drugs, the SC said “the law requires the presence of these witnesses primarily to ensure the establishment of the chain of custody and remove any suspicion of switching, planting, or contaminating of evidence.”
“We stress that the presence of the insulating witnesses is a vital requirement to ensure the preservation of the identity and evidentiary value of the seized drug,” the high court pointed out.
“In the face of the law enforcement officers’ heedless violation of the inventory, photograph and witness requirements under Section 21 of RA 9165, a substantial gap in the chain of custody arises, which ultimately casts doubt on the integrity and evidentiary value of the items that were allegedly seized,” the SC magistrates lamented.
In the four resolutions, the SC cited various lapses committed by law enforcers in the custody and handling of the illegal drugs seized from the six accused.
“In sum, we find that a broken chain of custody militates against the conviction of appellants beyond reasonable doubt, as the integrity and evidentiary value of the corpus delicti were not preserved,” it said.
On the use of illegal drugs when accused Ampaso was subjected to test after his arrest, the SC said: “Correspondingly, accused-appellant’s (Ampaso) conviction for use of dangerous drugs should also be reversed. The result of accused-appellant’s drug test cannot be used as evidence against him as it is an indirect result of his illegal apprehension due to the police officers’ noncompliance with the procedure provided in Sec. 21.
The SC also 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.