G.R. No. 236584. July 04, 2018

THIRD DIVISION: [G.R. No. 236584, July 04, 2018] PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES VS. JAMAEL KAPAL Y BERJAMEN.

Challenged in this appeal is the August 15, 2017 Decision[1] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 08281 affirming in toto the April 4, 2016 Decision[2] of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Caloocan City, Branch 120, in Criminal Case No. C-90569, convicting the herein appellant Jamael Kapal y Berjamen for Violation of Section 5 (Illegal Sale of Dangerous Drugs), Article II of Republic Act No. 9165 (RA 9165),[3] sentencing him to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment, and ordering him to pay a fine of P500,000.00.

The Information against the appellant reads as follows: Penned by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez with Associate Justices Ramon M. Bato, Jr. and Samuel H. Gaerlan, concurring,
That on or about the 23rd day of August, 2013 in Caloocan City, Metro Manila and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named [herein appellant], without being authorized by law, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously sell and deliver to SPO1 ALLAN O. LLANTINO, who posed as buyer, One (1) small heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet later marked "A[O]L-1-8-23-13" containing Methamphetamine Hydrochloride (shabu) weighing 0.50 gram, which when subjected for laboratory examination gave POSITIVE result to the tests for Methamphetamine Hydrochloride, a dangerous drug, and knowing the same; to be such.

Contrary to Law.[4] (Italics in the original.)
When arraigned, the appellant, assisted by counsel de oficio, entered a plea of not guilty.[5] At the pre-trial conference, the trial court's jurisdiction over the case and the identity of the appellant as the same person named in the Information were admitted by the defense. The pre-trial conference was then terminated. Trial on the merits thereafter ensued.[6]

The evidence for the prosecution, as summarized by the trial court and the CA, tends to establish the following:

At around 7:00 p.m. of August 22, 2013, the police officers of the District Anti-Illegal Drug Force - Special Operation Task Group (DAID-SOTG) of the Northern Police District (NPD) at Kaunlaran Village, Caloocan City, were informed by their regular confidential agent (RCI) that the herein appellant was engaged in the sale of illegal drugs in Manila and those interested to buy can contact him on his cellphone. Acting on this tip, Senior Police Officer 1 Allan O. Llantino (SPO1 Llantino) and Police Officer 2 Nestor Gonzales (PO2 Gonzales) promptly informed Police Chief Inspector Estelito Peniano, Jr. (PCI Peniano), Chief of the DAID-SOTG, who then decided to launch a buy-bust operation to arrest the appellant. Per instruction of PCI Peniano, PO2 Gonzales then prepared a Pre-Operation Report/Coordination Sheet with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). PCI Peniano appointed SPO1 Llantino to act as the poseur buyer. The group, however, decided to launch the operation on the following day because of other urgent matters.[7]

The next day, or on August 23, 2013, at around 10:00 a.m., the buy-bust team planned their operation and SPO1 Llantino instructed the RCI to contact the appellant and to tell the latter that he has a buyer of P2,000.00 worth of shabu to be delivered in Monumento, Caloocan City. The RCI complied and relayed the message to the appellant. After the latter agreed to such an arrangement, the buy-bust team was briefed as to the conduct of their buy-bust operation against the appellant. PCI Peniano then gave two P1,000.00-peso bills as buy-bust money to SPOl Llantino, the designated poseur-buyer, who then marked each bill with the initials "BBM." PO2 Gonzales, on the other hand, was tasked as the immediate back-up of SPO1 Llantino. The buy-bust team also agreed to the pre-arranged signal that SPO1 Llantino would remove his sunglasses once the sale is consummated.[8]

At around 1:30 p.m. of even date, the RCI received a call from the appellant with the instruction to meet him at Victory Mall in Monumento, Caloocan City. As such, the buy-bust team immediately left the DAID-SOTG office and proceeded to the venue suggested by the appellant. The buy-bust team arrived thereat at around 2:15 p.m. Upon arrival, both SPOl Llantino and the RCI proceeded to the mall entrance and waited for the appellant. PO2 Gonzales followed them while the other members of the buy-bust team strategically positioned themselves nearby. At around 3:00 p.m., the appellant, who was then wearing a gray shirt, arrived. The RCI approached him and introduced him to SPOl Llantino. The latter was also introduced by the RCI to the appellant by saying "[k]apatid siya ang bibili ng dalawang libong shabu." The appellant later asked SPOl Llantino for the money to which the latter responded by showing and handing the P2,000.00 to the former. The appellant got the money and placed it inside the right pocket of his short pants. In turn, SPOl Llantino asked where is the "basura" or shabu, thus, the appellant took out a Marlboro Lights cigarette pack from his left pocket, gave it to the former and told that it was inside the pack. SPOl Llantino checked the contents thereof and upon seeing a transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance, which he believed to be shabu, he placed the cigarette pack inside the left pocket of his pants, looked at PO2 Gonzales and gave the pre-arranged signal, i.e., by removing his sunglasses, that the sale is already consummated.[9]

SPO1 Llantino thereafter held the appellant and introduced himself as a police officer. After a short while, PO2 Gonzales arrived and handcuffed the appellant. SPOl Llantino subsequently retrieved the buy-bust money inside the appellant's right pocket and showed to PO2 Gonzales the heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance inside the cigarette pack. SPO1 Llantino marked the heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance with "AOL-1-8-23-13" while the cigarette pack with "AOL-2-8-23-13" and, thereafter, placed them inside a brown envelope marked as "RECOVERED EVIDENCE-8-23-13." SPO1 Llantino then informed the appellant of the nature of his offense and apprised him of his rights as an accused. But, the buy-bust team was not able to immediately conduct the inventory and take pictures of the evidence as their operation caused a commotion inside the mall; thus, an alarm was raised by the mall security.[10]

Both the appellant and the seized items were later brought at the DAID-SOTG - office. Upon the buy-bust team's arrival thereat, SPO1 Llantino, who remained in possession and control of the seized items, immediately turned over the same to the duty investigator, SPO1 Fidel B. Cabinta (SPO1 Cabinta). An inventory of the confiscated items was then conducted in the presence of the appellant and one Ismael "Ka Maeng" Santos, a media representative. SPO1 Cabinta then prepared the Request for Laboratory Examination of the seized items. Meanwhile, the appellant, who was also turned over to SPO1 Cabinta for booking, was interviewed about his personal details. SPO1 Cabinta also prepared the spot report on the incident. Afterwards, SPO1 Cabinta brought the appellant and delivered the seized items to the National Police District-Crime Laboratory Office [NPD-CLO] Satellite Office in Valenzuela City for drug testing and laboratory examination, respectively, together with the laboratory requests. PCI Richard Allan Mangalip [PCI Mangalip] received the specimen and conducted examination thereon. The appellant's drug test result yielded positive for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride per Chemistry Report No. D-34-13. On the other hand, the result on the examination of the seized one heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance likewise yielded positive for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride per Chemistry Report No. D-351-53.[11]

For its part, the defense offered a different version of the story, which was also summarized by the trial court and the CA, thus:
[The appellant], however, has a different story to tell. He stated that on [August 23, 2013], he was already in the custody of the police because he was arrested two days before. [The appellant] narrated that he was at the mall in the afternoon of [August 21, 2013] because he was going to meet his cousin who was a vendor at the mall. After talking to his cousin, he went to the third floor and talked to a prostitute peddling her ware. He refused the offer and started walking towards the escalator. Suddenly, he heard somebody shout at him to stop. When he turned around, he saw three men pointing guns at him. They told him to lay flat on the ground while they approached. After they frisked him, they took his bag which contained some money and an LRT card. After that, he was brought to the police station. There, he was told that he was being charged for selling drugs. Upon being asked if he knew the identity of the police officers, he answered that he could only identify SPO1 Llantino as one of those who arrested him.

[The appellant] then revealed that SPO1 Llantino told him to pay [P]500,000.00 so that the charges against him would be dropped.[12]
After weighing the evidence of both parties, the trial court rendered a Decision on April 4, 2016 convicting the appellant of the offense charged and sentenced him to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine of P500,000.00.[13]

The appellant elevated his case to the CA with the following assignment of errors: (1) the trial court gravely erred in finding the appellant guilty of the offense charged despite the evidentiary gaps in the chain of custody of the alleged confiscated shabu; and (2) the trial court erred in disregarding the appellant's defense.[14] On August 15, 2017, the CA rendered the now assailed Decision affirming in toto the appellant's conviction.[15]

Hence, this Appeal,[16] with the appellant still insisting upon the same errors committed by the trial court as basis for a review.

The Appeal lacks merit.

Upon careful perusal, this Court finds no sufficient reason to overturn the rulings of the trial court and the CA, thus, the conviction of the appellant stands.

It bears stressing that in ascertaining the identity of the illegal drugs presented in court as the ones actually seized from the accused, it must be shown by the prosecution that: (a) the prescribed procedure under Section 21(1),[17] Article II of RA 9165 has been complied with or falls within the saving clause provided in Section 21 (a),[18] Article II of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 9165; and (b) there was an unbroken link (not perfect link) in the chain of custody with respect to the confiscated items.[19]

While Section 21(1) of RA 9165 mandates that the apprehending team must immediately conduct a physical inventory of the seized items and photograph them, non-compliance therewith is not fatal as long as there is a justifiable ground and as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the confiscated/seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending team. In the case under consideration, the physical inventory and photographing of the seized items were not immediately conducted at the place of arrest but at the DAID-SOTG office. But, this fact alone would not render the evidence inadmissible especially when such failure was properly explained. Here we quote with conformity the CA's keen observation on the matter:
The rules and procedure laid out in [RA 9165] and its [IRR] and (sic) not iron-clad and must admit of exceptions for the interest of justice to prevail. Where time is of the essence, as in the case at bench wherein the team had to leave the premises because a security alarm was raised at the mall premises, they should not be faulted for their fast and immediate action. Their predicament at that time was justifiable and shall not render void and invalid the seizures of and custody over said items as long as the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved. The police operates under varied conditions, and cannot at all times attend to the niceties of the procedures in the handling of the confiscated evidence. Flexibility is a part of good police work. What is of utmost importance in buy-bust operations is the proof of the consummation of the sale or whether the transaction indeed transpired.[20] (Emphases supplied.)
Thus, even though the apprehending team failed to strictly follow the procedures laid down by law as to the conduct of the inventory and photographing of the seized items, such would not automatically render invalid the seized items. Moreover, a cursory reading of Section 21 (a), Article II of the IRR of RA 9165 revealed that the crucial factor is the preservation of the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items since they will be used to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.[21]

Here, the prosecution was able to demonstrate that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized item had not been compromised. The same has been preserved and remained intact. The crucial link in the chain of custody of the seized drug (subject matter of the case) from the time it was confiscated from the appellant until it was brought to the court during trial for examination/presentation was duly accounted for and was not shown to have been broken.To note, immediately after the consummation of the sale and the arrest of the appellant, SPO1 Llantino retrieved the bust-buy money from the former and marked the seized one-heat sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance with "AOL-1-8-23-13." As their buy-bust operation caused a commotion, the buy-bust team decided to conduct the inventory at the DAID-SOTG office, where both the appellant and all the seized items were brought. Upon arrival thereat, the seized items, i.e., the heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance and the cigarette pack, were immediately turned over by SPO1 Llantino to SPO1 Cabinta, the duty investigator. Thereafter, the seized items were inventoried and photographed in the presence of the appellant and one Ismael "Ka Maeng" Santos, a media representive. As can be gleaned therefrom, there was no evidence that SPO1 Llantino lost possession and control of the seized drug from the time it was recovered from the appellant until he turned it over to SPO1 Cabinta.[22] The latter then prepared the Laboratory Request for the examination of the contents of the heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet. SPO1 Cabinta later delivered the laboratory request, the heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance and the cigarette pack to the NPD-CLO, Valenzuela City Satellite Office Crime Laboratory. These were all received by PCI Mangalip, who conducted the examination thereon, which later yielded positive for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride. During trial, the seized drug, as well as the marked money, was presented in evidence. SPO1 Llantino, SPO1 Cabinta and PCI Mangalip all identified the seized drug through their respective markings.[23]

Given the foregoing sequence of events, it cannot be doubted that the seized drug marked "AOL-1-8-23-13" submitted for laboratory examination and found positive for shabuwas the same one sold to SPO1 Llantino, the designated poseur-buyer, during the buy-bust operation and the very same item presented during trial as the corpus delicti. There being no irregularity shown to have attended the chain of custody of the shabu, thus, its identity, integrity and probative value were properly preserved. Moreover, the integrity of the evidence is presumed to have been preserved unless there is a showing of bad faith, ill will, or proof that the evidence has been tampered with. The appellant bears the burden of showing that the evidence was tampered or meddled with in order to overcome the presumption of regularity in the handling of exhibits by public officers and the presumption—that public officers properly discharged their duties.[24] But, in this case, the appellant miserably failed to overcome such a presumption.

As to the appellant's defense of denial and frame-up, the same have been invariably viewed by the courts with disfavor as it can easily be concocted and is a common and standard defense ploy in most cases involving violation of the Dangerous Drugs Act. As they are both negative and self-serving evidence, they cannot attain more credibility than the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses who testify clearly, providing thereby positive evidence on the various aspects of the crime committed. To merit consideration, it has to be substantiated by strong, clear and convincing evidence, which the appellant failed to do for presenting no corroborative evidence.[25]

With respect to the penalty of life imprisonment and a fine of P500,000.00 imposed by the trial court and the CA, this Court sustains the same. Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 explicitly provides:
Section 5. Sale, Trading, Administration, Dispensation, Delivery, Distribution and Transportation of Dangerous Drugs and/or Controlled Precursors and Essential Chemicals. - The penalty of life imprisonment to death and a fine ranging from Five hundred thousand pesos (P500,000.00) to Ten million pesos (P10,000,000.00) shall be imposed upon any person, who, unless authorized by law, shall sell, trade, administer, dispense, deliver, give away to another, distribute dispatch in transit or. transport any dangerous drug, including any and all species of opium poppy regardless of the quantity and purity involved, or shall act as a broker in any of such transactions. (Emphases partly in the original and partly supplied.)
In sum, this Court finds no reason to disturb the findings of the trial court, as affirmed by the CA, that, indeed, the appellant's guilt for the offense charged was properly proven beyond reasonable doubt.

WHEREFORE, the instant appeal is hereby DISMISSED. The Decision dated August 15, 2017 of the CA in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 08281 is hereby AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

[1]Penned by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez with Associate Ramon M. Bato, Jr. and Samuel H. Gaerlan, concurring, Rollo, pp. 2-15.

[2]Penned by Judge Aurelio R. Ralar, Jr., CA rollo, pp. 52-65:

[3]Known as the "Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002."

[4]CA Decision dated August 15, 2017, Rollo, p. 7.

[5]Id.

[6]RTC Decision dated April 4, 2016, CA rollo, p. 53.

[7]RTC Decision dated April 4, 2016, id. at 55-56; CA Decision dated August 15, 2017, supra note 4 at 2-3.

[8]Id. at 56; Id. at 3.

[9]Id. at 56-57; Id. at 3-4.

[10]Id. at 57; Id. at 4.

[11]Id. at 57-58; Id.

[12]Id. at 58-59; Id. at 6.

[13]RTC Decision dated April 4, 2016, supra note 6 at 65.

[14]Brief for the Accused-Appellant dated December 13, 2016, id, at 37.

[15]CA Decision dated August 15, 2017, supra note 4 at 15.

[16]Per Notice of Appeal dated September 13, 2017, Rollo, pp. 16-17.

[17]Section 21. Custody and Disposition of Confiscated, Seized, and/or Surrendered Dangerous Drugs, Plant Sources of Dangerous Drugs, Controlled Precursors and Essential Chemicals, Instruments/Paraphernalia and/or Laboratory Equipment. - The PDEA shall take charge and have custody of all dangerous drugs, plant sources of dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals, as well as instruments/paraphernalia and/or laboratory equipment so confiscated, seized and/or surrendered, for proper disposition in the following manner:

(1) The apprehending team having initial custody and control of the drugs shall, immediately after seizure and confiscation, physically inventory and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof;

xxx

[18]SECTION 21. Custody and Disposition of Confiscated, Seized and/or Surrendered Dangerous Drugs, Plant Sources of Dangerous Drugs, Controlled Precursors and Essential Chemicals Instruments/Paraphernalia and/or Laboratory Equipment. - The PDEA shall take charge and have custody of all dangerous drugs, plant sources of dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals, as well as instruments/paraphernalia and/or laboratory equipment so confiscated, seized and/or surrendered, for proper disposition in the following manner:

(a) The apprehending officer/team having initial custody and control of the drugs shall, immediately after seizure and confiscation, physically inventory and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof: Provided, that the physical inventory and photograph shall be conducted at the place where the search warrant is served; or at the nearest police station or at the nearest office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable, in case of warrantless seizures; Provided, further, that non-compliance with these requirements under justifiable grounds, as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team, shall not render void and invalid such seizures of and custody over said items;

xxx

[19]Saraum v. People, G.R. No. 205472, January 25, 2016.

[20]CA Decision dated August 15, 2017, supra note 4 at 10.

[21]People v. Nepomuceno, G.R. No. 194999, February 9, 2015.

[22]RTC Decision dated April 4, 2016, supra note 6 at 63.

[23]RTC Decision dated April 4, 2016, Id.

[24]People v. Ygot, G.R. No. 210715, July 18, 2016.

[25]Sarum v. People, supra note 19.

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