The Supreme Court has exonerated and ordered the immediate release from jail of two women who was convicted in 2013 by the regional trial court after finding them guilty of peddling illegal drugs.
In a decision dated December 2, 2020 and made public last January 21, 2021, the SC acquitted Rosalina Manzanilla and Arlene Anonuevo, both residents of Binagonan, Rizal of the alleged crimes after the prosecutors failed to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt when the policemen violated the procedure in the handling of the seized illegal drugs, and the prosecution failed to justify the non-compliance with the rules under Republic Act No. 9165, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.
“Thus, the failure of the prosecution to justify or explain the police officers’ noncompliance in this case further underscores the doubt and suspicion about the truthfulness or legitimacy of the buy-bust operation supposedly conducted against the petitioners and the integrity of the evidence of the corpus delicti (the body of the crime) allegedly confiscated from them,” it added.
“All told, the blatant and unjustified breaches of procedure committed by the police officers in the seizure, custody, and handling of the seized drug create more than reasonable doubt on the guilt of the petitioners,” it ruled.
This prompted the high court to order the immediate release of Manzanilla and Anonuevo from the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City after almost eight years since their arrest and conviction by the trial court, unless “unless they are being lawfully held for another cause.”
The SC also lamented that the RTC and the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the RTC’s judgment, “turned a blind eye to the police officers’ complete and utter derogation of Section 21 (of RA 9165) and instead erroneously relied on the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty.”
“Judicial reliance on the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty despite the lapses in the procedures undertaken by the agents of the law is fundamentally unsound because the lapses themselves are affirmative proof of irregularity,” the tribunal ruled.
“More importantly, the presumption of regularity in the performance of duty, a mere rule of evidence, cannot overcome the presumption of innocence in favor of the accused guaranteed by no less than our Constitution,” it said.
The SC emphasized that in cases involving dangerous drugs, “the prosecution has the burden to prove compliance with the chain of custody requirements under Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, to wit: ( 1) the seized items must be inventoried and photographed immediately after seizure or confiscation; (2) the physical inventory and photographing must be done in the presence of (a) the accused or his/her representative or counsel, (b) an elected public official, (c) a representative from the media, and ( d) a representative from the Department of Justice (DOJ), all of whom shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy of the same; and (3) the seized drugs must be turned over to a forensic laboratory within 24 hours from confiscation for examination.”
“Strict compliance with the foregoing requirements is necessary in protecting the integrity and identity of the corpus delicti, without which the crime of the illegal sale and illegal possession of dangerous drugs cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt,” it said.
“Further, it is only by such strict compliance that the grave mischiefs of planting, switching and contamination of evidence may be eradicated and the legitimacy of the buy-bust operation may be proved,” it added.
Manzanilla and Anonuevo were arrested on April 23, 2012 in Binangonan during a police buy-bust operation. Seized from them was a plastic sachet containing 0.08 grams of shabu, a dangerous drug.
They were charged with violation of Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 on the sale of illegal drugs. They denied the charges and said they were framed up.
After almost one year of trial, they were convicted by the Binangonan RTC and sentenced to life imprisonment and fined P500,000 each.
On May 29, 2015, the trial court’s decision was affirmed by the CA which ruled that “the chain of custody cannot be said to have been interrupted or broken as to taint or create a doubt as to its integrity and evidentiary value and accordingly warrant the acquittal of accused-appellants.”
“We cannot reverse the judgement of conviction on the basis of accused-appellants’ testimonies alone, alleging frame-up. Their testimonies, uncorroborated and unsubstantiated, are merely self-serving and cannot be given any probative value. While there may have been inconsistency in some of the details in the testimonies of the apprehending officers, such details are of little significance,” the appellate court then said.
In ruling in favor of Manzanilla and Anonuevo, the SC noted that while the inventory and photographing of the evidence were conducted at the police station for investigation, they were done without the presence of two of the three required witnesses -- the representatives from the media and the DOJ.
“In addition, while there was a signature of an elective official in the inventory receipt, the said elective official testified that she did not personally witness the inventory, and was only able to sign the inventory receipt the following day after the arrest,” the SC said.
“The presence of all the required witnesses at the time of the inventory and photography is mandatory and the law imposes the said requirement because their presence serves to protect against the possibility of planting, switching, contamination or loss of the seized drug. The presence of these disinterested witnesses would belie any doubt as to the source, identity, and integrity of the seized drug,” it said.
However, the SC said non-compliance with the rules is not without remedy under the implementing rules of the law “as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team….”
“Thus, for this saving clause to apply, the prosecution still needs to satisfactorily prove that: (a) there is justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved,” it said.
In the case of Manzanilla and Anonuevo, the SC ruled that “the prosecution failed to establish any justifiable ground for the police officers’ failure to comply with the requirements of Section 21.”
“There is even no showing from the records of the case that the police officers exerted earnest efforts to comply with the requirements of the law,” it said.
“Considering that buy-bust is a planned operation, police officers are given sufficient time to prepare and consequently, make arrangements beforehand knowing full well that they would have to strictly comply with the set procedure prescribed in Section 21,” it said.
“They are therefore compelled ‘not only to state reasons for their non-compliance, but must in fact, also convince the Court that they exerted earnest efforts to comply with the mandated procedure, and that under the given circumstance, their actions were reasonable,’” it added.