FIRST DIVISION

 

 

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES,

Plaintiff-Appellee,

 

 

 

 

 

-versus-

 

 

 

 

ALBERTO BACUS ALCUIZAR,

Defendant-Appellant.

 

G.R. No. 189980

Present:

 

CORONA, C.J.,

Chairperson,

VELASCO, JR.,

LEONARDO-DE CASTRO,

DEL CASTILLO, and

PEREZ, JJ.

 

Promulgated:

 

April 6, 2011

x---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- x

 

D E C I S I O N

 

PEREZ, J.:

 

On appeal is the Decision[1] of the Court of Appeals affirming the conviction of appellant Alberto Bacus Alcuizar (appellant) by the Regional Trial Court, Branch 17 of Cebu City[2] in Criminal Case No. CBU-66345 which found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt of illegal possession of dangerous drugs in violation of Section 11, Article II of Republic Act No. 9165.

Appellant was charged with violation of Sections 5 (illegal sale), 6 (maintaining a drug den), 11 (illegal possession) and 12 (illegal possession of dangerous drug paraphernalia) of Republic Act No. 9165 in Criminal Cases Nos. CBU-66343, CBU-66344, CBU-66345 and CBU-66346. He was tried in two (2) separate criminal proceedings. Criminal Cases Nos. CBU-66343 and CBU-66344 went to RTC Branch 15 of Cebu City (RTC Branch 15). The instant appeal involved the joint trial of Criminal Cases Nos. CBU-66345 and CBU-66346 before RTC Branch 17 of Cebu City (RTC Branch 17).

 

The Information relating to the criminal case appealed from pertains to illegal possession of shabu in violation of Section 11 of Republic Act No. 9165, and it reads:

 

That on or about the 15th day of June, 2003 at about 2:00 oclock in the afternoon, in Barangay Awayan, Municipality of Carcar, Province of Cebu, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, without authority of law, did then and there, willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously have in his possession, custody, and control, the following: twenty-six (26) heat-sealed plastic packets containing white crystalline substance with a total weight of 0.52 grams; one (1) heat-sealed plastic pack containing 10.26 grams of white crystalline substance; two (2) strips of tin foil containing traces of white crystalline powder; and one (1) heat-sealed packet containing 0.02 gram of white crystalline substance, which when subjected to laboratory examination gave positive result for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride, a dangerous drug.[3]

 

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

 

During the pre-trial conference, the defense admitted the genuineness, authenticity and truthfulness of the Forensic Chemistry Report. Both parties thus agreed to dispense with the testimony of the forensic chemist.[4]

The lone witness for the prosecution, SPO1 Meliton Agadier (SPO1 Agadier), testified on the following facts:

 

SPO1 Agadier, PO3 Rolando Gantuangco (PO3 Gantuangco), SPO1 Roland Navales (SPO1 Navales), who were all assigned at the Municipality of Carcar Police Station in Cebu City, secured a search warrant[5] from the court to search the house of appellant on the suspicion that the latter is selling and in possession of shabu. On 15 June 2003, they first conducted a buy-bust operation in Sitio Awayan. The subject of the operation is appellant.

 

SPO1 Agadier was standing in a store across the house of appellant. He witnessed the poseur buyer hand the marked money to appellant in exchange for one deck of shabu.[6] Upon the consummation of the sale, SPO1 Agadier immediately pursued appellant, who ran to his parents house where he was eventually caught. After effecting the arrest, SPO1 Agadier and his team went back to the house of appellant to conduct a search.[7] The items recovered inside appellants house were one (1) big heat-sealed transparent plastic pack with white crystalline substance believed to be shabu, two (2) packs containing thirteen (13) decks each of suspected shabu, three (3) disposable lighters, a tooter, a tin foil with traces of shabu residue, and an improvised lamp.[8]

 

SPO1 Agadier related that appellant, appellants sister-in-law, one barangay captain, one barangay tanod, and several photographers were present during the implementation of the search warrant.[9] A receipt of the seized items was prepared and the barangay captain, barangay tanod, and two (2) photographers were asked to sign the receipt. The seized items were initially in the custody of SPO1 Navales. Upon reaching the police station, SPO1 Navales turned them over to SPO1 Agadier for marking. SPO1 Agadier prepared the request for laboratory examination before turning them over back to SPO1 Navales, who then delivered the items and the request to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Crime Laboratory.[10] Forensic Chemistry Report No. D-983-03 was issued confirming that the specimen submitted are positive for shabu.[11]

On 24 October 2006, the RTC Branch 15 of Cebu City,[12] acquitted appellant of the charge of illegal sale of shabu and maintaining a drug den in violation of Sections 5 and 6 of Republic Act No. 9165 in Criminal Cases Nos. CBU-66343 and CBU-66344.[13]

 

On 20 December 2006, RTC Branch 17 of Cebu City[14] rendered a Consolidated Judgment acquitting appellant in Criminal Case No. CBU-66346 for illegal possession of drug paraphernalia, but finding him guilty in Criminal Case No. CBU-66345 for illegal possession of shabu. The dispositive portion reads:

 

WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered as follows:

 

1.      In Criminal Case No. CBU-66345, the Court finds accused ALBERTO BACUS ALCUIZAR alias Albie GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of the offense charged therein (violation of Section 11 of RA 9165), and hereby sentences him to suffer life imprisonment and a fine of P400,000.00;

 

2.      In Criminal Case No. CBU-66346, accused ALBERTO BACUS ALCUIZAR alias Albie is ACQUITTED based on reasonable doubt.[15]

 

The trial court held that the prosecution has clearly proven that appellant was guilty of illegal possession of dangerous drugs since the plastic packs of shabu were found inside his room. The trial court relied on the presumption that when prohibited drugs are found in a house or building belonging to and occupied by a particular person, such person is in possession of such drugs in violation of the law. Moreover, the trial court dismissed appellants defense of denial as weak and debunked his claim that the evidence were planted as such was not supported by any evidence on record.[16]

 

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed appellants conviction.

 

The core issue in this appeal is whether the prosecution was able to establish beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of appellant. Appellant insists on his innocence and imputes to the trial court the following errors:

 

1.                  The Honorable Regional Trial Court erred in convicting the accused notwithstanding the failure of the prosecution to prove the very corpus delicti of the crime considering that the chain of custody of the same is unreliable;

 

2.                  The Honorable Regional Trial Court erred in convicting the accused despite the fact that the said conviction would be tantamount to violation of the constitutional right of the accused against double jeopardy;

 

3.                  The Honorable Regional Trial Court erred in convicting the accused by not taking into account some evidences of vital importance like the improper motive on the part of the police officers;

 

4.                  The Honorable Regional Trial Court erred [in] convicting the accused in spite of [the] failure of the prosecution to prove with moral certainty the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.[17]

 

 

The dangerous drug itself, the shabu in this case, constitutes the very corpus delicti of the offense and in sustaining a conviction under Republic Act No. 9165, 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-appellant; otherwise, the prosecution for possession under Republic Act No. 9165 fails.[18]

 

The chain of custody 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.[19] In Lopez v. People[20] citing Catuiran v. People,[21] this Court held that:

 

It would include 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.[22]

 

The aforesaid 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.[23]

 

Appellant cites the failure of the police officer to mark the evidence immediately after purportedly taking it from him. This omission, appellant contends, renders the chain of custody dubious.

 

SPO1 Agadier admitted that he only marked the seized items at the police station. While the rule allows marking of evidence to be done in the nearest police station, this contemplates a case of warrantless searches and seizures.[24] In this case, the police officers were able to secure a search warrant prior to their operation. SPO1 Agadier did not offer an explanation or a justification on why he did not immediately mark the plastic packs of shabu seized inside appellants house notwithstanding that an inventory receipt was even prepared while the police officers were still inside the house of appellant. They were given sufficient time and opportunity to prepare for its implementation. Thus, failure to comply with the marking of evidence immediately after confiscation constitutes a first gap in the chain of custody.

 

Appellant also points out the failure of the police officers to give or leave a copy of the inventory receipt upon the accused or any of his family members pursuant to Section 21 of Republic Act No. 9165.

Adherence to the guidelines under Section 21 of Republic Act No. 9165 relating to custody and disposition of confiscated or seized dangerous drugs accounts for a crucial link in the chain of custody rule. It provides:

 

Section 21. Custody and Disposition of Confiscated, Seized, and/or Surrendered Dangerous Drugs, Plant Sources of Dangerous Drugs, Controlled Precursors and Essential Chemicals, Instruments/Paraphernalia and/or Laboratory Equipment. The PDEA shall take charge and have custody of all dangerous drugs, plant sources of dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals, as well as instruments/paraphernalia and/or laboratory equipment so confiscated, seized and/or surrendered, for proper disposition in the following manner:

 

1.                  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.

 

 

But it was provided further under Section 21(a), Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of Republic Act No. 9165 that non-compliance with the prescribed procedures does not necessarily result in the conclusion that the identity of the seized drugs has been compromised so that an acquittal should follow as long as the prosecution can demonstrate that the integrity and evidentiary value of the evidence seized have been preserved.

 

SPO1 Agadier narrated that a certain photographer took pictures of the items seized from the house of appellant. However, the photograph/s do not appear on the records nor were they offered by the prosecution as evidence. Thus, the requirement of taking a photograph was not clearly proven. Anent the inventory receipt, while it was prepared and appeared on records, the police officers failed to provide appellant a copy of the inventory receipt. Appellant construed this omission as fatal.

This omission alone is not necessarily fatal to the cause of the prosecution. However, this Court cannot ignore the nagging doubt created in our mind with respect to the barangay tanods testimony pertaining to the inventory receipt which affects the integrity of the corpus delicti in general.

 

He testified:

 

Q: On June 15, 2003, could you please tell us whether you were there when the police officers of Carcar implemented the search warrant against him for violation of RA 9165, the Anti-Drugs Law?

 

A: We were there but we arrived late than the policemen.

 

Q: When you said we arrived at what place you are referring to, Mr. Witness?

 

A: In the house of Alberto Alcuizar.

 

Q: You said you were late. Why are you late, Mr. Witness? Why, are you not ready of your duties and responsibilities, preparedness in times of emergency?

 

A: We were late in going because we were only fetched by the barangay councilor. That is why we arrived late.

 

Q: Who is the barangay councilor you are referring to that allegedly fetched you?

 

A: Barangay Councilor Imperio.

 

Q: Nevertheless, Mr. Witness, when you arrived what did you observe there at the place of Alberto Alcuizar, if you remember?

 

A: When we arrived there we were provided with flashlights and we were told to assist them in looking for shabu.

 

Q: What happened next after you were given flashlights to look for shabu?

 

A: I was continuously looking but I did not find any.

 

Q: How about you co-barangay tanod, did he also recover or find something?

 

A: No, sir.

 

Q: How about the policemen, did they recover shabu in that house of Alberto Alcuizar, Mr. Witness?

 

A: When we arrived the alleged shabu were already on top of the table.

 

Q: You were only told by the police that there was shabu on top of the table?

 

A: No, we were not told by the policemen but we were told to sign before we left.

 

Q: What is the affixing of signature stands for according to the police?

 

A: He told us that the document we signed was to attest only that we were there and assist the apprehension. I do not know that it refers to the shabu.

 

Q: Meaning you thought all the while that there was shabu recovered inside the house?

 

A: I really thought but I saw some shabu on top of the table.

 

Q: It was only the policemen who pointed you the shabu on top of the table?

 

A: They did not also tell us, they just asked us to sign.

 

Q: They never told you that they were able to recover shabu?

 

A: No, sir.

 

Q: You only assumed that what was put on the table colored white is shabu, Mr. Witnes?

 

A: I only believe that it was the shabu.

 

Q: Nevertheless, Mr. Witness, you only went there not to the fact as witness to the recovery of shabu, you thought all the while you were there as witness wherein the policemen went there?

 

A: That is right.[25]

 

 

Note from the testimony of the barangay tanod that he and the barangay captain arrived later than the police officers. And when they reached appellants house, the alleged confiscated shabu were already on top of a table. He was merely asked to sign the inventory receipt, which he did without hesitation. As can be gleaned from his testimony, the barangay tanod did not witness how the police officers conducted their search and how they were able to discover the packets of shabu inside appellants house. Aside from the barangay tanod, no other signatories in the receipt were presented by the prosecution to authenticate the document.

 

In People v. Garcia,[26] the Court enumerated several cases dealing with the legal repercussions of failing to comply with Section 21 of Republic Act No. 9165, thus:

 

In People v. Orteza, the Court, in discussing the implications of the failure to comply with Paragraph 1, Section 21, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, declared:

 

In People v. Laxa, where the buy-bust team failed to mark the confiscated marijuana immediately after the apprehension of the accused, the Court held that the deviation from the standard procedure in anti-narcotics operations produced doubts as to the origins of the marijuana. Consequently, the Court concluded that the prosecution failed to establish the identity of the corpus delicti.

 

The Court made a similar ruling in People v. Kimura, where the Narcom operatives failed to place markings on the seized marijuana at the time the accused was arrested and to observe the procedure and take custody of the drug.

 

More recently, in Zarraga v. People, the Court held that the material inconsistencies with regard to when and where the markings on the shabu were made and the lack of inventory on the seized drugs created reasonable doubt as to the identity of the corpus delicti. The Court thus acquitted the accused due to the prosecution's failure to indubitably show the identity of the shabu.

 

We reached the same conclusion in People v. Nazareno and People v. Santos, Jr., and recently, in the cases of People v. Dela Cruz and People v. De la Cruz where we again stressed the importance of complying with the prescribed procedure. We also held that strict compliance is justified under the rule that penal laws shall be construed strictly against the government, and liberally in favor of the accused.[27]

 

 

The first gap in the chain of custody was compounded by the vague recollection of SPO1 Agadier regarding the transfer of custody of the shabu. This second gap in the chain of custody was evident in SPO1 Agadiers statements, thus:

 

Q: After the recovery all these items by you and officer Gantuangco, what happened next?

 

A: After the witnesses signed the application we brought the accused to our police station.

 

Q: Who have custody of all the items recovered from the residence of the accused and when you brought him to the police station?

 

A: I turned over to the recorder SPO1 Roland Navales.

 

Q: And at the police station, please tell us what happened there?

 

A: After that SPO1 Navales entered in the police blotter and he turned over the evidence to me for marking to the crime laboratory.

 

Q: You mentioned that the items were also turned over to you by Navales for marking so that you can have this request for the crime laboratory, was that request reduced into writing?

 

A: Yes, sir.

 

Q: Will you please go over this Mr. Witness and tell us if this is the one?

 

A: This is the request I prepared.

 

FISCAL PARADIANG

 

Q: Please tell us who sign this request?

 

A: Chief of Police, PSI Edgardo Sanchez Aldemita.

 

We request that the written request for laboratory examination be marked as Exhibit H; the signature of the requesting party by PSI Edgar Sanchez Aldemita be sub marked as Exhibit H-1.

 

Q: After making the request, what happened?

 

A: It was SPO1 Navales who delivered the items and the request for the PNP Crime Laboratory.[28]

 

 

Based on his testimony, it was not indicated who had initial control and custody of the plastic packs of shabu upon their confiscation. SPO1 Agadier merely claims that he turned them over to SPO1 Navales without specifying whether the latter received it while they were still inside the appellants house or at the police station. It is also not clear who was in possession of the plastic packs of shabu while in transit. Moreover, SPO1 Navales did not testify to confirm the statement of SPO1 Agadier.

 

Verily, the failure of the police officers to mark the dangerous drugs immediately after their seizure and the vague recollection of SPO1 Agadier concerning the custody of the drugs from the residence of appellant up to the time it was submitted to the crime laboratory constitute a huge and significant gap in the chain of custody which substantially affects the identity of the corpus delicti.

 

To successfully prosecute a case of illegal possession of dangerous drugs, the following elements must be established: (1) the accused is in possession of an item or object which is identified to be a prohibited drug; (2) such possession is not authorized by law; and (3) the accused freely and consciously possessed the said drug.[29]

 

The Court of Appeals ruled that appellant is presumed to have been in possession of the prohibited drugs when they were found in his house. While this presumption may be true, it is certainly not conclusive and may be rebutted by contrary evidence. It is worthy to reiterate that this Court entertains serious doubts as to whether the prohibited drugs were indeed found in appellants house considering that there were no other witnesses presented to prove it. And it is by the same doubt that constrains this Court to acquit appellant.

 

At this juncture, it is no longer necessary to discuss the other assigned errors.

 

WHEREFORE, the 4 December 2008 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 00716 affirming the conviction of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 17, Cebu City in Criminal Case No. CBU-66345 for illegal possession of shabu under Section 11 of Republic Act No. 9165, is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Appellant ALBERTO BACUS ALCUIZAR is declared 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.

 

SO ORDERED.

 

 

JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ

Associate Justice

 

 

 

 

WE CONCUR:

 

 

 

RENATO C. CORONA

Chief Justice

Chairperson

 

 

 

 

 

PRESBITERO J. VELASCO, JR. TERESITA J. LEONARDO-DE CASTRO

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

 

 

 

MARIANO C. DEL CASTILLO

Associate Justice

 

 

 

C E R T I F I C A T I O N

 

Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the Constitution, it is hereby certified that the conclusions in the above Decision were reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Court.

 

 

 

RENATO C. CORONA

Chief Justice

 

 



[1] Penned by Associate Justice Francisco P. Acosta with Associate Justices Amy C. Lazaro-Javier and Rodil V. Zalameda, concurring. Rollo, pp. 2-16.

[2] Presided by Judge Silvestre A. Maamo, Jr. Records, pp. 88-92.

[3] Id. at 1 and 88.

[4] Id. at 26.

[5] Id. at 8.

[6] TSN, 17 May 2005, p. 12.

[7] Id. at 5.

[8] Records, p. 6.

[9] Id. at 7.

[10] TSN, 17 May 2005, p. 8.

[11] Records, p. 9.

[12] Presided by Judge Fortunato M. De Gracia, Jr.

[13] Records, pp. 106-110.

[14] Presided by Judge Silvestre A. Maamo, Jr. Id. at 88-92.

[15] Id. at 92.

[16] Id. at 90-91.

[17] CA rollo, p. 36.

[18] People v. Denoman, G.R. No. 171732, 15 August 2009, 596 SCRA 257, 267 citing People v. Robles, G.R. No. 177220, 24 April 2009, 586 SCRA 647, 655-656.

[19] People v. Sanchez, G.R. No. 175832, 15 October 2008, 569 SCRA 194, 218.

[20] G.R. No. 184037, 29 September 2009, 601 SCRA 316.

[21] G.R. No. 175647, 8 May 2009, 587 SCRA 567.

[22] Lopez v. People, supra note 20 at 327.

[23] People v. Sanchez, supra note 19 at 218-219.

[24] Dolera v. People, G.R. No. 180693, 4 September 2009, 598 SCRA 484, 493-494.

[25] TSN, 4 July 2006, pp. 3-4.

[26] G.R. No. 173480, 25 February 2009, 580 SCRA 259.

[27] Id. at 269-270.

[28] TSN, 17 May 2005, pp. 8-9.

[29] People v. Partoza, G.R. No. 182418, 8 May 2009, 587 SCRA 809, 816 citing People v. Naquita, G.R. No. 180511, 28 July 2008, 560 SCRA 430, 451; People v. Cruz, G.R. No. 185381, 16 December 2009, 608 SCRA 350, 364; People v. Gutierrez, G.R. No. 177777, 4 December 2009, 607 SCRA 377, 390-391.