SC acquits, orders release of 6 persons convicted, jailed in illegal drugs cases

Published June 27, 2021, 8:54 AM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court (SC)

Six persons who had been convicted by both the trial courts and the Court of Appeals (CA) of selling and possessing illegal drugs have been acquitted and ordered released by the Supreme Court (SC).

In five separate resolutions, the SC ruled that the law enforcement agents who conducted the buy-bust operations failed to follow strictly the procedures laid down in the law, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act under Republic Act No. 9165, in the handling of the seized illegal drugs.

By not following strictly the chain of custody. reasonable doubt on the integrity and identity of the seized illegal drugs cropped up that led to the acquittal of those convicted, it said.

Acquitted in resolutions promulgated last April 28 but posted on the SC website only last June 22 were:

  1. Angelo C. Aranas who was arrested on July 20, 2016 in Malate, Manila and was charged with illegal sale and possession of shabu (methamphetamine hydrochloride). On July 21, 2017, the trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment for selling shabu and 12 to 20 years jail term for possession. CA affirmed the trial court’s conviction on Dec. 7 2018.

  1. Antonio Ancheta who was arrested in San Fernando City in La Union on Aug. 17, 2015 and charged with selling shabu. He was convicted by the trial court on Nov. 17, 2016 and sentenced to life imprisonment. The decision was affirmed by the CA on Sept. 28, 2017.

  1. Ronald D. Orale and Renato C. Gutierrez who were arrested in Paranaque City on Aug. 26, 2013 for selling and possessing shabu, respectively. On Sept. 30, 2016, Orale was sentenced to life imprisonment while Gutierrez was meted out a jail term ranging from 12 to 17 years. Orale appealed to CA, while Gutierrez did not. CA, on Jan. 31, 2019, affirmed the trial court’s decision.

  1. Nelly A. Ortizano who was arrested inside her house in Bacolod City on April 24, 2014. She was charged with selling shabu to policemen. She was convicted by the trial court on Aug. 31, 2017 and sentenced to life imprisonment. The CA affirmed the conviction on Jan. 30, 2019.

  1. Arnel M. Verbo who was arrested on Sept. 28, 2014 in Gattaran, Cagayan. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by the trial court on Nov. 17, 2016. The CA affirmed the conviction on Feb. 23, 2018.

The SC’s directive to release them was addressed to the Bureau of Corrections. It was not known immediately if they have been freed.

In their appeal, they all told the SC that the prosecution failed to establish an unbroken chain of custody of the allegedly seized illegal drugs.

In a long line of decisions and resolutions, the SC said 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 (the body of the crime), without which the crime of the illegal sale and illegal possession of dangerous drugs cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt,” it said.

In the case of Aranas, the SC said: “Only a media representative signed the inventory of evidence. Yet, the operatives failed to provide any justification showing that the integrity of the evidence had all along been preserved. Worse, there was no attempt on the part of the buy-bust team to comply with the law and its implementing rules.”

“In brief, the sachet presented in evidence against Ancheta remained unmarked from the time it was allegedly confiscated up to the team’s arrival in the office. Doubts, therefore, linger as to the item’s identity, integrity, and whereabouts during the period of transport, creating a critical gap in the chain of custody, which warrants Ancheta’s acquittal,” the SC said.

In the case of Orale and Gutierrez, the SC said: “The prosecution in this case failed to sufficiently prove justifiable ground for non-compliance with the dictates of Section 21, Article II of RA No. 9165 and its IRR. The absence of the required insulating witnesses puts serious doubt as to the integrity of the confiscated items. Admittedly, only a media representative witnessed the inventory. The prosecution gave no explanation why the presence of an elected public official and a DOJ representative was not secured.”

“The Court cannot tolerate the lax approach of law enforcers in handling the very corpus delicti of the crime. Hence, Nelly Ortizano y Arce must be acquitted of the charges against her given the prosecution’s failure to prove an unbroken chain of custody,” the SC said.

In this case (of Verbo), “the apprehending officers admittedly failed to strictly comply with the chain of custody procedure, i.e., they conducted the inventory without the presence of a representative from the NPS (National Prosecution Service) or the media,” the SC said.

“Given the nature of a buy-bust operation as a planned activity, the team could have secured or exerted efforts to secure the presence of the insulating witnesses before the conduct of the operation,” it stressed.

“In this case, however, the team admittedly coordinated with the required insulating witnesses only after the operation. Worse, the records are bereft of any indication that they took other measures and exerted sufficient efforts to ensure the presence of the witnesses during the inventory,” it said.

The SC also said:

“We stress, the presence of the persons who should witness the post-operation measures is necessary to insulate the apprehension and incrimination proceedings from any taint of illegitimacy or irregularity.

“The insulating presence of such witnesses would have preserved an unbroken chain of custody considering that a buy-bust operation is susceptible to abuse, and the only way to prevent this is to ensure that the procedural safeguards provided by the law are strictly observed.”