FIRST DIVISION

[G.R. No. 150663. February 5, 2004]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, appellee, vs. WU TUAN YUAN @ PETER CO, appellant.

D E C I S I O N

CARPIO, J.:

The Case

This is an appeal from the Decision[1] of the Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 41 (trial court), in Criminal Case No. 99-175844, finding appellant Wu Tuan Yuan alias Peter Co (appellant) guilty of unlawfully selling 251.04 grams of shabu in a buy-bust operation conducted by operatives from the Western Police District (WPD) on 15 August 1999.

The Information charging appellant of selling shabu reads:[2]

That on or about August 15, 1999, in the City of Manila, Philippines, the said accused, not having been authorized by law to sell, dispense, deliver, transport or distribute any regulated drug, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and knowingly sell or offer for sale, dispense, deliver, transport, or distribute one transparent plastic bag containing 251.04 grams of white crystalline substance known as SHABU containing methamphetamine hydrochloride, which is a regulated drug.

Contrary to law.

Arraigned on 11 October 1999 with the aid of a Chinese interpreter and assisted by counsel, appellant pleaded not guilty to the charge.[3] Trial ensued thereafter.

On 2 August 2001, the trial court rendered judgment, the dispositive portion of which reads:

WHEREFORE, judgment is hereby rendered finding the accused WU TUAN YUAN also known as Peter Co guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the offense charged in the Information and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua and a fine of One Million Pesos (P1,000,000.00).

x x x.

SO ORDERED.[4]

The Trial

The Prosecutions Version

The prosecutions version is pieced together from the testimonies of PO2 Roberto Diaz (PO2 Diaz), Police Inspector and Forensic Chemist Arlene M. Valdez (Valdez), SPO3 Edgardo Abaga (SPO3 Abaga), SPO1 Danilo Mante (SPO1 Mante), SPO1 Antonio Castillo (SPO1 Castillo), security guards Juanito Alforque (Alforque) and Frederick Lajorda (Lajorda).

WPD operatives arrested a certain Wilson Esternon (Esternon), from whom WPD operatives recovered several kilos of shabu. During interrogation, Esternon disclosed that appellant was a big time supplier of illegal drugs. Police Superintendent Richard Albano (P/Supt. Albano) of the WPD Detective Trackers Section (DTS) organized a buy-bust team to apprehend the appellant, designating SPO3 Abaga as team leader, PO2 Diaz as poseur buyer, with SPO1 Castillo and SPO2 Alfredo De la Rosa (SPO2 De la Rosa) as members of the assault team. The team contacted their Chinese informant who divulged that appellant resides at the Twin Dynasty Tower located in Bambang, Tondo, Manila. The team conducted surveillance at appellants residence for a week. Following instructions from the team, the informant contacted appellant and set up a drug deal for the purchase of 300 grams of shabu worth P200,000. The deal was scheduled at 3:00 oclock in the morning of 15 August 1999, at the third level parking lot of the Twin Dynasty Tower. P/Supt. Albano gave PO2 Diaz two pieces of P1,000 bills to be placed on top and at the bottom of the paper cuttings or boodle money. P/Supt. Albano told PO2 Diaz to make the boodle money look like P200,000. The bills were marked on the upper right side portion with the initials DTS.

At about 2:00 oclock in the morning of 15 August 1999, the team headed to the Twin Dynasty Tower. SPO3 Abaga, SPO2 De la Rosa and SPO1 Castillo rode together in one car while PO2 Diaz and the informant used another vehicle. PO2 Diaz and the informant waited at the ground level of the tower. SPO3 Abaga and his companions waited inside their car on the third level parking lot beside appellants parking space. At around 3:00 oclock in the morning, PO2 Diaz and the informant proceeded to the third level parking lot. After 10 minutes, appellant arrived in his car. Appellant got out of his car and approached the informant and PO2 Diaz. Appellant and the informant spoke in Chinese for about a minute. Then, appellant went back to his car, took something wrapped in Chinese newspaper and handed it to PO2 Diaz saying that the item was inside. PO2 Diaz handed the boodle money to appellant and scratched his head as a signal to the assault team that he had consummated the deal. SPO3 Abaga, SPO2 De la Rosa and SPO1 Castillo alighted from their car and apprehended appellant. SPO3 Abaga recovered the boodle money and the item wrapped in Chinese newspaper. The police officers apprised appellant of his constitutional rights before bringing him to the WPD headquarters on U.N. Avenue in Manila. SPO3 Abaga placed his initials EA and the date of confiscation 8/15/99 on the plastic bag containing the white crystalline substance (substance) obtained from appellant.

At the station, the team executed a joint affidavit of arrest. The team turned over the boodle money and the substance to SPO1 Mante who conducted further investigation on the incident. SPO3 Abaga and SPO2 De la Rosa attempted twice to have the substance examined at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) only to find out there was no chemist on duty because a portion of the NBI compound was bombed. On 16 August 1999, the substance was brought together with a letter-request for chemical analysis to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Crime Laboratory. PNP Forensic Chemist Valdezs chemical analysis revealed that the substance confiscated from appellant was positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride.

The Defenses Version

Appellant countered that no buy-bust operation took place. He denied selling any shabu and accused the police of extortion and frame up. With the aid of a Chinese interpreter, appellant testified that in the early morning of 15 August 1999, he came home with his wife and two children after visiting relatives. While he was parking his car on the third level parking lot of Twin Dynasty Tower, a car suddenly came from behind them and blocked their way. Four men alighted from the car, three of whom approached them and surrounded appellants car. The man who stood beside appellants side knocked on his window and motioned for appellant to open the window. As appellant opened his window a little, the man immediately shoved his hands inside and pulled the lock of the door. Since the car was automatic, all the doors were unlocked. The men pulled appellant, his wife and children out of their car. One of the men slapped his daughter as they screamed. Appellant pressed the cars horn as the men were pulling him out of the car. Responding to the commotion, two security guards ran towards appellants car but the fourth man blocked their way. Appellant was boxed several times forcing him to let go of the cars steering wheel. As he was pushed to the passengers side, one of the men took the drivers seat while the other two rode at the back. The fourth man drove away in his own car. Appellants wife and children were left behind. The men drove appellant around, his eyes blindfolded and his mouth taped. The men beat up appellant during the entire time they drove him around. The man who was driving the car gave appellant a cellular phone and told him to call up his house, demanding P5,000,000 from him. Appellant further testified that all this time, the men kept talking and beating him up. Appellant overheard them saying Charlie! Charlie! several times. He then suspected that a neighbor and business rival named Charlie had a hand in his arrest. He called up his wife and told her that the men were demanding P5,000,000 from him. The men subsequently brought appellant to the police station and shoved appellant inside a small room. After around 30 minutes, he was brought to another room on the second floor where he was locked-up until sunrise. According to appellant, the men kept beating him up and asking for money.

To prop up appellants version, the defense presented appellants wife Xu Liang Liang, security guards Romeo Yape, Ricky Villarin and Maximo Corpuz. The defense also presented SPO2 De la Rosa and SPO1 Castillo as hostile witnesses.

Xu Liang Liang corroborated appellants narration of the incident that the police officers accosted them while parking their car at the parking lot of their condominium. She testified that the police officers forcibly took her husband and demanded P5,000,000 for his return. Ricky Villarin, a security guard on duty at the Twin Dynasty Tower at the time of the incident, testified that a vehicle without a sticker entered the premises at 11:05 oclock in the evening of 14 August 1999. The vehicle proceeded to the third level parking area. His co-security guard Romeo Yape signaled for him to check the car. When he got to the third floor, he saw appellants family crying. When he approached the group, he was told by a police officer not to interfere with police business. He saw the police officers pulling appellant out of his car but he did not actually see them take appellant away because he went down already.

Security guard Romeo Yape (Yape) testified that the police officers arrival in the Twin Dynasty Tower at about 12:05 oclock in the morning of 15 August 1999 was recorded in the security logbook. When the logbook was presented in court, Yape stated that the page where the police officers entry was recorded was missing. According to Yape, a co-security guard by the name of Frederick Lajorda (Lajorda) reported to him that the police officers returned to the tower at 9:00 oclock in the evening of 15 August 1999 and tore off that page from the logbook. Maximo Corpuz (Corpuz), another security guard, testified that at the time of the incident, he was on duty at the Asia Trust Bank located in Twin Dynasty Tower. He testified that he saw 4 men arrive at around 9:00 oclock in the evening of 16 August 1999. One of them spoke to the towers guard on duty, Lajorda. Corpus saw this man tear a page from the logbook after speaking to Lajorda.

The defense likewise presented SPO2 De la Rosa and SPO1 Castillo as hostile witnesses to prove that there was no buy-bust operation. However, both SPO2 De la Rosa and SPO1 Castillo on direct examination by defense counsel corroborated the prosecutions version of the incident that appellant was apprehended after a legitimate buy-bust operation.

The Trial Courts Ruling

The trial court found the police officers narration of the incident far more worthy of belief than that of the defense witnesses. The trial court declared that law enforcers are presumed to have regularly performed their duties in the absence of proof to the contrary. Appellant failed to show that the prosecution witnesses were improperly motivated to accuse him falsely of such a serious crime. The trial court noted that the testimonies of defense witnesses Xu Liang Liang, Romeo Yape and Maximo Corpuz were demolished by Frederick Lajorda, a rebuttal witness for the prosecution. It even appeared to the trial court that Yape and Corpuz were paid to testify in appellants favor. The trial court dismissed as inconsequential the improbabilities cited by the appellant, i.e., a drug dealer would not sell to a stranger and would not be fooled into accepting boodle money, since there are no hard and fast rules that govern the acts of participants in illegal drug deals. The trial court concluded that bare denials could not prevail over the prosecution witnesses positive identification of appellant as the person who sold shabu to the poseur buyer.

The Issues

In his 140-page brief, appellant contends the trial court erred in:

1. x x x giving credence to the prosecutions patently bogus buy bust operation;

2. x x x holding that accuseds defense of extortion and frame-up was inherently weak notwithstanding very strong, convincing and unrebutted corroborative evidence;

3. x x x relying solely on the presumption of regularity in the performance of the arresting policemens duties in convicting accused, especially since there was proof that the buy-bust team had ill motives;

4. x x x overlooking or misappreciating certain crucial facts of substance and circumstances which, if considered, would warrant the accuseds acquittal;

5. x x x completely disregarding competent evidence which proved the fact that the accused was a legitimate businessman; and

6. x x x not giving the accused the benefit of the doubt considering that the crucial inculpatory (sic) facts are capable of two or more explanations one of which is consistent with the innocence of the accused.[5]

Considering the assigned errors, we find that the issues pertain to the (1) assessment of credibility of the witnesses; (2) sufficiency of prosecutions evidence to overcome the presumption of innocence in appellants favor and to prove the offense beyond reasonable doubt; and the (3) believability of defenses theory of extortion and frame-up.

The Courts Ruling

We affirm appellants conviction. After a careful examination of the records of this case and a meticulous evaluation of the evidence of the parties, we find no reason to disturb the trial courts assessment of the credibility of the witnesses for the prosecution. Time and again, this Court has ruled that the findings of the trial court, which had the opportunity to observe the witnesses during their testimony, are accorded with great respect.[6] In this case, the trial court found the testimonies of the witnesses for the prosecution to be credible and those of the defense witnesses unworthy of belief. We see no cogent reason to depart from this doctrine. We are fully convinced that the prosecution has proven beyond reasonable doubt appellants guilt for the offense charged.

First, appellants enumeration of several improbabilities in the buy-bust that allegedly cast doubt as to whether the operation indeed took place fails to convince. Appellant contends he could not have handed the drugs to PO2 Diaz since as the prosecutions version goes, appellant was transacting in Chinese with the informant. The trial court also failed to consider that appellant was arrested in the company of his wife and children and within the premises of the condominium building where he resides. Appellant contends a drug pusher would not have sold to a stranger and would not have readily accepted the boodle money without detecting its falsity.

In many cases, drug pushers sell their prohibited articles to prospective customers, be they strangers or not, in private as well as in public places, even in the daytime.[7] Indeed, some drug pushers appear to have become exceedingly daring, openly defiant of the law. Hence, what matters is not the existing familiarity between the buyer and seller, or the time and venue of the sale, but the fact of agreement as well as the act constituting the sale and delivery of prohibited drugs.[8] We have doubts as to whether appellants family was around during the buy-bust since the prosecution witnesses testified to the contrary. Nevertheless, even the circumstance that appellants wife and children may have been around is of no great significance in establishing appellants guilt or innocence.

Second, appellants contention that there is no truth to the prosecutions claim that the team conducted surveillance prior to the buy-bust operation does not help appellants cause. Appellant claims that the 3 pieces of information gathered during the alleged surveillance could have easily been obtained from the informant. The 3 pieces of information referred to are the appellants address, the usual time appellant leaves his residence, and a vague description of one of appellants accomplices.

We have consistently held that prior surveillance of the suspected offender is not indispensable to the prosecution of drug cases. Whether or not the team conducted surveillance before the operation and what sort of information they gathered during the surveillance is of no moment. Suffice it to state that there is no requirement that surveillance should be conducted prior to a buy bust operation, especially when the informant brought the operatives to the scene[9] as what happened in this case.

Third, appellant underscores the prosecutions refusal to reveal the identity and to present the Chinese informant as fatal to the case for the prosecution. Appellant loses sight of the fact that there is no need to present the informant in court where the prosecution witnesses actually witnessed the sale and the prosecution proved this during the trial.[10] The settled rule is that the presentation of an informant in illegal drugs cases is not essential for conviction nor is it indispensable for a successful prosecution because an informants testimony would be merely corroborative and cumulative.

In this case, the informants testimony is evidently not indispensable in view of the declarations of not only PO2 Diaz as the poseur buyer but of 3 other eyewitnesses, namely SPO3 Abaga, SPO1 Castillo and SPO1 De la Rosa.

Fourth, appellant maintains that the notoriety of police operatives in dealing with illegal drug cases is a matter of judicial notice that should have warned the trial court to exercise caution in relying upon the presumption of regularity in the performance of the duties of police officers. Appellant further contends that the trial court erred in relying solely on this presumption considering this cannot constitute, by itself, proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Appellant also avers that the trial court wrongly applied this presumption because there was proof that the members of the buy bust team had ill motives.

We are aware that in some instances law enforcers resort to the practice of planting evidence to extort money from a civilian. However, like alibi, frame-up is a defense that the Court has invariably viewed with disfavor as one can easily concoct it. Hence, frame-up is commonly used as a standard line of defense in most prosecutions arising from violations of the Dangerous Drugs Act. In this light, courts cannot accept in every instance the police officers alleged rotten reputation as sole basis for acquittal.[11] The presumption that police officers involved in a buy-bust operation have performed their duties regularly can be overturned if clear and convincing evidence is presented to prove either of two things: (1) that they were not properly performing their duty, or (2) that they were inspired by any improper motive.[12]

Appellant failed to show the presence of either of these two conditions. Appellants attempt to downgrade the testimonies of the police officers is bereft of substantial basis since it has not been shown that they had an improper motive. To impute ill motive on the police officers, appellant testified that while he was being held captive and driven around, the police officers kept saying Charlie! Charlie! When defense counsel asked appellant what may be the police officers motive in this alleged caper, appellant explained that his neighbor and business rival Charlie may have been behind his arrest. The prosecution aptly pointed out during the trial that this was how police officers communicated in the radio. On the whole, we find appellants imputation of ill motive on the police officers on this basis not only hollow and self-serving but simply absurd.

Fifth, equally unavailing is appellants claim that the testimonies of defense witnesses Romeo Yape and Maximo Corpuz that the police officers returned to Twin Dynasty Tower and tore a page from the security guards logbook is evidence of a police cover up.

From the evidence at hand, we find every reason to disregard these declarations. SPO1 Castillo denied that this tearing incident happened. Prosecution witness Juanito Alforque countered that as head security guard of Asia Trust Bank, he knows that the bank has no guard on night duty. Hence, Corpuz could not have been there on the night in question doing guard duty as Corpuz claimed. Most damaging to the testimonies of Yape and Corpus was that of the other prosecution witness, Frederick Lajorda. Lajorda categorically denied reporting to Yape or Corpuz about a tearing incident. Lajordas testimony effectively impeached the testimony of Yape and Corpuz. Moreover, it was highly unusual for all 4 police officers to return to the scene of the crime just to tear a page from a logbook as this would be highly conspicuous. A person whose object is to cover-up a wrongdoing would strive not to call attention to his actions.

Sixth, we do not agree with appellants argument that the prosecutions failure to adduce evidence that the boodle money allegedly used in the buy bust operation was dusted with fluorescent powder and that appellants fingerprints were taken from the confiscated transparent plastic bag containing the suspected shabu discredits the prosecution evidence.

The use of fluorescent powder and fingerprinting are neither indispensable nor required in buy-bust operations.[13] There is no law or rule of evidence requiring the use of fluorescent powder or the taking of the culprits fingerprints from the bag containing the shabu.

Seventh, appellant attacks the integrity of the buy-bust operation on account of SPO3 Abaga and SPO2 De la Rosas delay in bringing the confiscated substance directly to the PNP Crime Laboratory in Camp Crame. SPO3 Abaga and SPO2 De la Rosa both testified that they attempted twice to have the confiscated substance examined at the NBI but found there was no chemist on duty. The next day, on 16 August 1999, they brought the substance to the PNP Crime Laboratory for chemical analysis.

The defense would have us infer from these circumstances that the police officers were just stalling to give them enough time to secure the illegal substance which they never had in the first place. The testimonies of the buy-bust team clearly established that the shabu taken from the appellant is the same substance examined by the forensic chemist and later presented as evidence in court. We cannot deduce from the one-day delay that the police made use of the time to procure shabu by other means just to pin down appellant. It was not at all unusual for the police officers to have the substance examined at the NBI compound on Taft Avenue, due to its proximity to the WPD headquarters on U.N. Avenue, Manila. It was not also unreasonable for the police officers to expect that a chemist would still be on duty since only a portion of the NBI compound was bombed. There was a chance that the bombing incident did not paralyze the entire operations of the NBI. Precisely, the police officers verified whether a chemist was still on duty and when they found out there was none, they promptly brought the shabu to the PNP.

Lastly, appellant would persuade us that his status as a legitimate businessman trading in toys and garments as shown by several official documents (Articles of Partnership from the Securities and Exchange Commission, business permits from the Office of the Mayor and a Special Investors Resident Visa from the Board of Investments), renders a finding that he is dealing in drugs improbable. We do not find this reason compelling enough to exculpate appellant. Again, there is no law or rule of evidence stating that a person who appears to be engaged in a legitimate business precludes involvement in a crime. Moreover, we find it curious that a certain Grace Laurente, appellants business partner as shown in the articles of partnership, did not even testify to vouch for his character. Also, appellant repeatedly stated that he was engaged in the business of selling toys and garments, but his business registration states that he is in the business of selling native hats.

All told, we agree with the trial court that most of the points raised by appellant refer to trivial matters that have no bearing on the elements of the crime. Indeed, these are peripheral matters that do not detract from what the prosecution has established by credible evidence. On the contrary, the Court does not find as credible the allegation that the police officers framed the appellant through the buy-bust operation for the purpose of extorting money. This defense requires stronger proof to overcome the finding of the trial court that the prosecution witnesses were the ones who made truthful statements. No proof of ill-motive on the part of the police officers to extort money and to impute a serious offense appears in the records. Thus, the presumption that public officers regularly performed their public duty remains undisturbed.

The crux of this case is the alleged illegal sale of shabu by appellant. In a prosecution for illegal sale of dangerous drugs, what is material is proof that the accused peddled illicit drugs, coupled with the presentation in court of the corpus delicti.[14] The testimonies of the buy-bust team established that police officers legitimately and successfully carried out an operation on 15 August 1999 to apprehend appellant. The positive identification of appellant by poseur buyer PO2 Diaz as the one who peddled the shabu unequivocally established the illicit sale as PO2 Diaz is the best witness to the transaction. Nevertheless, PO2 Diazs testimony was corroborated in every material detail by the other operatives who participated in the buy bust operation, namely SPO3 Abaga, SPO1 Castillo and SPO1 De la Rosa. As found a quo, the consummated sale between PO2 Diaz and appellant led to the eventual arrest of appellant.[15]

Appellant was charged for violation of Section 15, Article III of Republic Act No. 6425 (RA 6425), as amended by Section 14 of Republic Act No. 7659 (RA 7659).[16] As amended, Section 15 now reads:

SECTION 4. Sale, Administration, Delivery, Distribution and Transportation of Prohibited Drugs. - The penalty of reclusion perpetua to death and a fine ranging from five thousand pesos to ten million shall be imposed upon any person who, unless authorized by law, shall sell, administer, deliver, give away to another, distribute, dispatch in transit or transport any prohibited drug, or shall act as a broker in any of such transactions.

Notwithstanding the provisions of Section 20 of this Act to the contrary, if the offense is a minor, or should a prohibited drug involved in any offense under this Section be the proximate cause of the death of the victim thereof, the maximum penalty herein provided shall be imposed.

Section 20 of RA 6425, which deals with the application of penalties, was also amended by Section 17 of RA 7659, thus:

SECTION 20. Application of Penalties, Confiscation and Forfeiture of the Proceeds or Instrument of the Crime. - The penalties for the offense under Section 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 of Article II and Sections 14, 14-A, 15 and 16 of Article III of this Act shall be applied if the dangerous drugs involved is in any of the following quantities:

1. 40 grams or more opium;

2. 40 grams or more morphine;

3. 200 grams or more of shabu or methylamphetamine hydrochloride;

4. 40 grams or more of heroin;

5. 750 grams or more of Indian hemp or marijuana;

6. 50 grams or more of marijuana resin or marijuana resin oil;

7. 40 grams or more of cocaine or cocaine hydrochloride; or

8. In the case of other dangerous drugs, the quantity of which is far beyond therapeutic requirements, as determined and promulgated by the Dangerous Drugs Board, after public consultation/hearings conducted for the purpose.

Otherwise, if the quantity involved is less than the foregoing quantities, the penalty shall range from prision correccional to reclusion perpetua depending upon the quantity.

The amount of shabu sold being more than 200 grams, the trial court correctly imposed the penalty of reclusion perpetua. The fine of P1,000,000 imposed by the trial court should however be reduced to P500,000 in line with current jurisprudence.[17]

In closing, we reiterate that drug addiction is one of the most pernicious evils that has ever crept into our society.[18] More often than not, it is the young who constitute the greater majority of the citizenry who are the victims.[19] On the other hand, equally reprehensible is the police practice of using the law as a tool in extorting money from hapless victims. Courts must be vigilant in trying drug charges lest an innocent person is made to suffer the unusually severe penalties for drug offenses. In this case, however, appellant failed to prove his theory of extortion and frame-up.

WHEREFORE, the Decision of the Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 41, in Criminal Case No. 99-175844, finding appellant Wu Tuan Yuan alias Peter Co guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Article III, Section 15 of Republic Act No. 6425, as amended by Republic Act No. 7659, and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua, is AFFIRMED with the MODIFICATION that the fine imposed be reduced to P500,000.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., (Chairman), Panganiban, and Ynares-Santiago, JJ., concur.

Azcuna, J., on official leave.



[1] Penned by Judge Rodolfo A. Ponferrada.

[2] Records, p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p. 33.

[4] Ibid., pp. 327-328.

[5] Rollo, p. 60.

[6] People v. Uy, G.R. No. 129019, 16 August 2000, 338 SCRA 232.

[7] People v. Elemparo, 385 Phil. 1052 (2000).

[8] People v. Macuto, G.R. No. 80112, 25 August 1989, 176 SCRA 762.

[9] People v. Alao, G.R. No. 126516, 19 January 2000, 322 SCRA 380.

[10] People v. Valdez, 363 Phil. 481 (1999); People v. Doria, 361 Phil. 595 (1999).

[12] Ibid.

[13] People v. Zheng Bai Hui, G.R. No. 127580, 22 August 2000, 338 SCRA 420.

[14] People v. Chang, 382 Phil. 669 (2000).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Took effect on 31 December 1993.

[17] People v. Remerata, supra, note 11; People v. Chua Tan Lee, G.R. No. 144312, 3 September 2003.

[18] People v. Policarpio, G.R. No. L-69844, 23 February 1988, 158 SCRA 85.

[19] Ibid.