SC: Receipts Showing Chain of Custody of Seized Drugs Cannot be Altered While in Transit
January 12, 2024
The Supreme Court has ruled that even a minimal change in the receipts recording the movement of seized drugs is fatal to the integrity of the chain of custody in drug cases.
Thus held the Supreme Court’s Second Division, in a Decision penned by Senior Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, as it granted the appeal by Francis Valencia (Valencia) and Ryan Antipuesto (Antipuesto). The appeal challenged the ruling of the Court of Appeals (CA) affirming the Regional Trial Court’s (RTC) conviction of Valencia and Antipuesto for illegal sale of dangerous drugs.
In 2016, Valencia and Antipuesto were arrested following a buy-bust operation by the Provincial Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Group of the Negros Oriental Provincial Police that yielded a large heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet with white crystalline substance, which Dumaguete City Police Officer I Crisanto Panggoy (Panggoy), the designated poseur buyer, concluded to be shabu.
The RTC found Valencia and Antipuesto guilty of illegal sale of dangerous drugs under Republic Act No. 9165 (RA) or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. Their conviction was upheld by the CA, prompting the present appeal before Court.
In granting Valencia and Antipuesto’s appeal, the Court held that to be convicted of the crime of illegal sale of dangerous drugs, the following must be proved beyond reasonable doubt: (1) the transaction took place; and (2) the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti, or the fact of the commission of the crime, were established.
While the Court found that the transaction happened, as evidenced by the conducted prior surveillance and the buy bust operations, the prosecution, however, failed to establish the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti beyond reasonable doubt.
Under RA 9165, among the requirements for the custody and disposition of the confiscated dangerous drugs and other paraphernalia is the marking of the seized contraband, which is an important component of the first link of chain of custody.
The act of marking separates the marked illegal drugs “from the corpus of all other similar or related evidence from the time of seizure from the accused until disposition at the end of criminal proceedings,” said the Court.
“The entire chain of custody is founded on the correct marking of the specimen because the marking serves as a reference point for all succeeding handling of the dangerous drugs,” the Court stressed.
The Court also held that given its crucial purpose, marking should be done immediately right after the seizure of dangerous drugs to preclude unnecessary doubts on the first custodial link. “Failure to mark at the point of seizure endangers the integrity of the chain of custody,” said the Court.
The paper trail or the receipts recording the movement of seized specimen are likewise important evidence showing the chain of custody. “These documents must accurately reflect the marking written on the confiscated drugs and the series of transfers. Succeeding handlers of the seized contraband will have to rely on the marking stated in these documents and compare it with the actual marking on the specimen,” stressed the Court.
Thus, to preserve the chain of custody, the specimen must bear the reference marking stated in the paper trail, the Court held.
In the present case, while the Court found that the marking was done at the place of arrest, there was, however, a discrepancy in the paper trail recording the movement of the seized drugs.
Evidence show that Panggoy, as the arresting officer, seized the sachet of white crystalline substance and marked it as “FLV-RA-06-16-16” then kept it in his custody. At the police station, he prepared the inventory form and subsequently, the letter request for the specimen’s transfer to the crime laboratory. In the letter request, however, the specimen was referred to as “FLV/RA-BB-01-16-2016”.
During the transfer of the drugs to the crime laboratory, Police Officer III Michelle Cañete (Cañete) received the letter request and specimen for forensic examination but acknowledged that the marking in the specimen did not match the marking indicated in the letter request.
Despite the discrepancy, however, Cañete allowed Panggoy to alter the marking stated in the letter request, by striking out “20.”
The Court ruled that while Panggoy was the seizing officer and evidence custodian, he had no authority to modify the letter request reflecting the chain of custody.
As Cañete had no personal knowledge whether the specimen submitted for testing was the same sachet seized from Valencia and Antipuesto, she should not have accepted the specimen upon seeing that the actual marking on the specimen did not match the marking stated in the letter request.
As a result, when the forensic chemist examined and presented the specimen to the trial court, it was no longer certain that they were the same drugs seized from Valencia and Antipuesto. There is thus reasonable doubt on the integrity and identity of the corpus delicti, necessitating the acquittal of Valencia and Antipuesto, ruled the Court. (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)
FULL TEXT of G.R. No. 250610 (People v. Valencia and Antipuesto, July 10, 2023) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/250610-people-of-the-philippines-vs-francis-valencia-y-lorenzo-and-ryan-antipuesto/