Due to police lapses, SC acquits illegal drug suspect of 2 charges

Published August 19, 2021, 2:56 PM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court (SC)

The Supreme Court (SC) has ordered the acquittal and immediate release of a Makati City resident who has been in prison for almost five years since Oct. 21, 2016 when he was arrested, charged and convicted of illegal possession of dangerous drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Ronaldo B. Mallari must have already been released by the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) since the SC order was issued last June 16 but was made public only last Aug. 16.

BuCor was ordered to release Mallari within five days from receipt of the SC order contained in a resolution “unless he is being lawfully held in custody for any other reason.”

The SC’s June 16, 2021 resolution was actually a reversal of its own June 17, 2019 ruling as it granted Mallari’s motion for reconsideration. The 2019 SC ruling affirmed the Court of Appeals’ (CA) decision upholding the conviction of Mallari by the regional trial court (RTC).

The SC explained that it had to take a second look on Mallari’s case because of its recent decisions which mandated strict compliance by law enforcers in the handling of seized illegal drugs and paraphernalia from suspects as provided for under Section 21, Article II of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act under Republic Act No. 9165 as amended by RA 10640 in 2014.

Case records showed that Mallari was arrested by the police on Oct. 21, 2016 in his Makati City residence. The police claimed that seized from him were 0.03 gram of methamphetamine hydrochloride, known as shabu, and drugs paraphernalia like two pieces of glass water pipe, one piece aluminum foil and one disposable lighter.

Mallari was brought to the barangay outpost of Bantay-Bayan, Barangay Cembo where an inventory of the confiscated items was conducted in the presence of a certain Kagawad (village councilman) Ordonio.

The seized items were turned over to PO3 Michael Danao of the Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operation Task Group Office who prepared the request for laboratory report, request for drug test, chain of custody, and request for medical examination which showed that the seized items were positive for shabu.

When arraigned on Nov. 9, 2016, Mallari entered a plea of not guilty to the two criminal cases. During the trial, he refuted all the allegations of the police.

On Jan. 25, 2017, the trial court convicted Mallari and sentenced him to a prison term ranging from 12 to 14 years with a fine of P300,000 for illegal possession of dangerous drugs and from six months to four years with a fine of P50,000 for possession of drugs paraphernalia.

On May 8, 2018, the CA affirmed the RTC’s ruling and on June 17, 2019, the SC upheld the appellate court’s decision. Mallari filed a motion to reconsider the SC’s 2019 resolution. Last June 16, his motion was granted by the SC.

Reiterating its previous decisions on drugs cases, the SC said that “in cases of illegal possession of dangerous drugs and illegal possession of drug paraphernalia, the prohibited drug and the drug paraphernalia are the corpus delicti (body) of the crimes.”

The SC said: “Any doubt in the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti warrants the acquittal of the accused. To remove any unnecessary doubts on account of switching, planting, or contamination of the evidence, the prosecution must be able to account for each link in the chain of custody from the moment of the seizure of the dangerous drugs and drug paraphernalia up to their presentation in court.”

It cited the four links in the chain of custody — the seizure and marking, if practicable, of the illegal drug and drug paraphernalia recovered from the accused by the apprehending officer; the turnover of the seized items by the apprehending officer to the investigating officer; the turnover of the confiscated items by the investigating officer to the forensic chemist for laboratory examination; and the turnover and submission of the illegal drug from the forensic chemist to the court.

In the first link, the SC explained that Section 21 (1), Article II RA 9165 “requires the apprehending team having initial custody and control of the dangerous drugs or drug paraphernalia to, immediately after seizure and confiscation, conduct a physical inventory of the seized items and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or other persons from whom such items were confiscated, or his/her representative or counsel, with the presence of two or three third-party witnesses depending on when the anti-narcotics operation was conducted.”

“If prior to the amendment of RA 9165 by RA 10640, three witnesses are required consisting of a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official,” it said.

After the amendment which took effect on July 23, 2014, it pointed out that “only two witnesses are necessary, which are an elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service or the media.”

It said that since the illegal drugs operation was conducted on Oct. 21, 2016, “the amendatory law governs and the inventory and photographing of the seized items must be made in the presence of two witnesses.”

The SC said that in its previous decision, it held that third-party witnesses should also be present even at the time of apprehension of the accused.

In the case of Mallari, the SC pointed out that “only Kagawad Ordonio was present as third-party witness during the arrest of Mallari as well as during the physical inventory and photographing of the confiscated items.”

The SC said:

“In this case, the marking of the seized items was irregularly done. Only the initials of P02 Jed Hernandez were indicated. The sachet containing white crystalline substance was marked as ‘HJA,’ the unsealed plastic sachet containing shabu residue as ‘HJA-1,’ the two glass tooter pipes as ‘HJA-2,’ and the aluminum foil as ‘HJA-3.’

“The date, time, and place of the buy-bust operation were not inscribed on the confiscated items in violation of the Philippine National Police’s own rules.

“Notably, the abovementioned irregularities would not ipso facto render the seizure and custody of the seized items invalid provided that the prosecution shows that: (a) there is justifiable ground for non-compliance; and (b) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved.

“This is the so-called saving clause found in the last sentence of paragraph 1, Section 21. However, the police officers failed to satisfy both requisites. As noted in the CA’s Decision, the prosecution did not present evidence showing any justifiable ground for the police officers’ deviation from Section 21.

“The prosecution also failed to establish the second, third, and fourth links in the chain of custody. There was no proof of how the seized items were turned over by the apprehending officers… to the investigating officer….

“We also observe that the amount of narcotics involved in the charge of illegal possession of dangerous drugs against Mallari is miniscule, only 0.03 gram of shabu.

“We declared (in a previous ruling) that the miniscule amount of narcotics seized, while itself not a ground for acquittal, requires for a more exacting compliance with Section 21. This is because the likelihood of tampering, loss, or mistake with an exhibit is greatest when the exhibit is small and one that has a physical characteristics fungible in nature and similar in form to substances familiar to people in their daily lives.

“We acquitted the accused (in another decided case) from illegal sale of 0.02 gram of dangerous drugs because of: (i) the prosecution’s failure to establish the four links in the chain of custody; (ii) the physical inventory and taking of photographs of the seized items were done in the presence of the accused and only one witness, a representative from the media; and (iii) the prosecution’s failure to acknowledge and give a justifiable ground for non-compliance with Section 21.

“All told, We acquit Mallari of violation of Sections 11 and 12, Article II of RA 9165, as amended, for failure of the prosecution to establish beyond reasonable doubt the corpus delicti of the crimes.

“Petitioner Ronald Mallari y Basillo is ACQUITTED of the crimes charged against him and is ORDERED to be IMMEDIATELY RELEASED, unless he is being lawfully held in custody for any other reason. The Director General of the Bureau of Corrections is DIRECTED to inform this Court of the action taken hereon within five (5) days from receipt hereof. SO ORDERED.”