SC acquits drug convict re chain of custody

The Supreme Court has acquitted a drug convict on ground of reasonable doubt as it underscored that “[t]he observance of the chain of custody, being necessary to preserve the integrity of the drug presented as evidence, must be clearly established.”

In a 19-page decision penned by Chief Justice Lucas P. Bersamin, the Court’s First Division ordered the Davao Prison and Penal Farm to immediately release Rogelio Yagao from detention unless he is legally confined for another lawful cause. Yagao was convicted in 2011 by the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 25, Cagayan de Oro City for violation of Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. The RTC decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals (CA) in 2014.

Yagao was caught with one transparent plastic bag containing 7.40 grams of dried marijuana during an alleged buy-bust operation in 2006 at Zone 4, Bugo, Cagayan de Oro City.

The High Court held that the prosecution failed to establish the essential element of delivery of the dangerous drug by the accused-appellant to the poseur buyer. Citing the transcript of stenographic notes, the Court noted that the cop who acted as poseur-buyer quickly effected Yagao’s arrest just as soon as he had pulled out the marijuana from his pocket, hence, the seizure happened before Yagao could hand over the illegal drug. “Under such circumstance, there was no sale because the delivery of the dangerous drug to the poseur buyer had not yet transpired. Delivery as one of the essential elements of illegal sale of dangerous drug under Section 5 of R.A. No. 9165 is defined as the act of knowingly passing a dangerous drug to another, personally or otherwise, and by any means, with or without consideration.”
The High Court further held that the chain of custody of the confiscated drug, not being unbroken, raised grave doubts about the integrity of the drug as evidence of the corpus delicti (i.e., the fact of a crime having been actually committed.) It stressed that it has “frequently held that the observance of the chain of custody was essential in the preservation of the identity of the confiscated drug” because “the drug, being itself the corpus delicti of the crime of illegal sale charged, will be the factual basis for holding the accused criminally liable under Section 5 of R.A. No. 9165.”

The High Court held that “[c]ontrary to the finding of the CA and the RTC, serious and unjustifiable gaps broke the chain of custody of the confiscated marijuana.” It noted irreconcilable inconsistencies tainted the arresting and seizing officers’ recollections about the links in the chain of custody, which diminished the credibility of their supposed observance of the chain of custody. “Hence, their incrimination of the accused-appellant was fully discredited and should not be allowed to stand. As a result, we should doubt the stated reason for the arrest,” it ruled. (G.R. No. 216725, People v. Yagao, February 18, 2019)