Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chain of custody of evidence in drug cases - G.R. No. 183849

G.R. No. 183849
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"x x x.

Appellate courts generally accord finality to the trial court’s findings but not when, as in this case, such findings are evidently flawed.[6] Tuzon said that a police asset directly tipped him that Ulep was about to buy shabu from a source; Labutong said, however, that it was the Chief Police Inspector who told them that Ulep had just bought shabu from the source. Labutong said that the police had been watching Ulep as a user for a month before the incident; Tuzon said they only came to know Ulep after they apprehended and brought him to the police station. Also, Tuzon said that he and Labutong went to Barangay 13 on board a tricycle that he drove; Labutong was sure, on the other hand, that they came in a patrol car which he himself drove. These inconsistencies are irreconcilable and could not possibly be the result of mere memory lapses. They bear the signs of poor fabrication.

Further, since custody and possession of the drugs usually change from the time they are seized to the time they are presented in court, it is indispensable that, if the drugs are already in sealed plastic sachets, the police officer involved immediately place identifying marks on the cover. If the drugs are not in a sealed container, the officer is to place them in a plastic container, seal the container, and put his marking on the cover. In this way there is assurance that the drugs would reach the crime laboratory analyst in the same condition it was seized from the accused.[7]

This did not happen here. None of the officers involved in the seizure marked the plastic sachets of alleged drugs. The markings took place at the police station already and it is not clear who made them. Tuzon testified that Labutong placed the markings; Labutong said that SPO2 Butay did it. Prompt marking of the seized items is vital because it serves as the starting point in the custodial link and succeeding handlers of the specimens often use the marking as reference.[8] Since the officers in this case could not even agree as to who made the required marking, then it would be difficult for the Court to rest easy that the specimens presented before the trial court were the same specimens seized from Ulep. These lapses cast a serious doubt on the authenticity of the corpus delicti, warranting acquittal on reasonable doubt.[9]

The Court has recently held that drug enforcement agencies should continually train their officers and agents to observe the rules governing drug-related cases and transfer out those who would not. Failure to observe these basic rules results not only in consequent acquittals but also in loss of precious time to futile exercise.[10]

WHEREFORE, the Court GRANTS the petition and SETS ASIDE the decision of the Court of Appeals dated July 18, 2008 in CA-G.R. CR 30328 and the decision of the Regional Trial Court of Laoag City in Criminal Case 11863-13, and ACQUITS the accused-appellant Domingo Ulep on the ground of reasonable doubt. The Court orders his immediate RELEASE from custody unless he is being held for some other lawful cause.