If PNP fails in 3-witness rule, drug suspect acquitted

CASE DIGEST: PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. WILLARD LAWAY Y CANOY, ACCUSED-APPELLANT. [G.R. No. 227741, March 27, 2019].

FACTS: On 14 May 2012, the PNP received an information from a confidential informant that [appellant] was engaged in the selling of prohibited drugs. Upon receiving the information, the PNP conducted a briefing to plan a buy-bust operation. A buy-bust team was formed composed of PO3 Acain, SPO1 [C]edric Sansarona, PO3 Luceno, and PO3 Labares. Also present during the briefing were PC/Insp. Lapiz and the investigator, PO3 Rusto Ceniza, as well as media representative Jun Bacus, Barangay Kagawad Ella Emnace, and the confidential informant. During the briefing, PO3 Acain was designated as the poseur-buyer while the rest of the team were designated as the apprehending officers.

The buy-bust operation was done as planned.

Immediately after the arrest and search conducted by the police officers and while still at the crime scene, an inventory was conducted by PO3 Ceniza, the evidence custodian. The police officers likewise took photographs of the seized items. The inventory was done in the presence of Jim Bacus, representing the media, and Kagawad Emnace who acted as witnesses, as well as [appellant].

The accused testified that, on the said date at around 10:00 p.m., he was outside of the waiting shed of the mini-terminal in Buru-un, Iligan City, on his way to Camague, Iligan City, to borrow money from his sister; that while he was waiting for a passenger jeepney, he was suddenly arrested by policemen who accused him of "selling" drugs; that they told him not to run; that he did not run because he did nothing wrong; that they frisked him but did not find anything; that he was handcuffed and made to board a service vehicle; and that he was detained at the police station in Nonucan, Iligan City.

ISSUE: Appellant contends that the prosecution failed to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt as there was a failure on the part of the police officers to preserve the integrity of the alleged seized items.

HELD: The appeal is meritorious. Willard Laway y Canoy was ACQUITTED on reasonable doubt, and is ORDERED IMMEDIATELY RELEASED from detention.

The Court agrees with appellant.

Under Section 21, Article II of RA 9165, the physical inventory and taking of photographs of the seized items must be witnessed by three necessary witnesses (i.e. any elected public official and representatives from the media and the DOJ).In People v. Lim, in case any of the necessary witnesses are not available, the prosecution must allege and prove the reasons for their absence and convince the Court that earnest efforts were exerted to secure their attendance. The Court explained -
It must be alleged and proved that the presence of the three witnesses to the physical inventory and photograph of the illegal drug seized was not obtained due to reason/s such as:
(1) their attendance was impossible because the place of arrest was a remote area; (2) their safety during the inventory and photograph of the seized drugs was threatened by an immediate retaliatory action of the accused or any person/s acting for and in his/her behalf; (3) the elected official themselves were involved in the punishable acts sought to be apprehended; (4) earnest efforts to secure the presence of a DOJ or media representative and an elected public official within the period required under Article 125 of the Revised Penal Code prove futile through no fault of the arresting officers, who face the threat of being charged with arbitrary detention; or (5) time constraints and urgency of the anti-drug operations, which often rely on tips of confidential assets, prevented the law enforcers from obtaining the presence of the required witnesses even before the offenders could escape.
Earnest effort[s] to secure the attendance of the necessary witnesses must be proven. People v. Ramos requires showing of any genuine and sufficient effort to secure the required witnesses . In People v. Umipang, the Court held that the prosecution must show that earnest efforts were employed in contacting the representatives enumerated under the law for "a sheer statement that representatives were unavailable without so much as an explanation on whether serious attempts were employed to look for other representatives, given the circumstances is to be regarded as a flimsy excuse."
In this case, the physical inventory and the taking of photographs of the seized items were witnessed by media representative Jun Lino Bacus and Kagawad Emnace. Since there was no representative from the Department of Justice (DOJ) present at that time, the required witnesses rule was not complied with. Thus, it was incumbent upon the prosecution to justify the absence of the DOJ representative and convince the Court that earnest efforts were exerted to secure the presence of the same. Unfortunately, records show that no justification was offered by the prosecution. Neither did it show that earnest efforts were exerted to secure the presence of the DOJ representative. In view of the failure of the prosecution to provide a justifiable reason for the non-compliance with Section 21, Article II of RA 9165 which created doubt as to the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items, the Court is constrained to acquit the appellant based on reasonable doubt.

[1] AN ACT INSTITUTING THE COMPREHENSIVE DANGEROUS DRUGS ACT OF 2002, REPEALING REPUBLIC ACT NO. 6425, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE DANGEROUS DRUGS ACT OF 1972, AS AMENDED, PROVIDING FUNDS THEREFOR, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES. Approved: June 7, 2002.
[2] G.R. No. 231989, September 4, 2019.

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