G.R. No. 232238. Jan 10, 2018

THIRD DIVISION  [ G.R. No. 232238, January 10, 2018 ]  PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES VS. LEO ONCE Y NAVARRA.

The Court NOTES:
(1)
the letter dated November 18, 2017 of P/Supt. I Roberto R. Rabo, Superintendent of the New Bilibid Prison, Bureau of Corrections, Muntinlupa City, confirming the confinement therein of accused-appellant since March 20, 2015;
(2)
the Office of the Solicitor General's Manifestation and Motion in Lieu of Supplemental Brief dated December 11, 2017 stating that all relevant issues have been adduced in its Brief of May 16, 2016 as such it is adopting the same and it is waiving its right to file the required supplemental brief; and
(3)
accused-appellant's Manifestation (in Lieu of Supplemental Brief) dated December 27, 2017 stating that he would no longer file a supplemental brief since no issues material to the case which were not elaborated in the appellant's brief were discovered.
Before this Court is an Appeal from the August 10, 2016 Decision[1] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR HC No. 07574 upholding the conviction of herein accused-appellant Leo Once y Navarra (Once) for violation of Sections 5 and 11 of Republic Act No. 9165 (R.A. 9165), otherwise known as "The Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002."


The Facts
In two separate Informations filed before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Makati City, Branch 64, accused-appellant Once was charged with violation of Sections 5 and 11 of R.A. 9165, committed as follows:
Criminal Case No. 14-018

On the 3rd day of January 2014, in the city of Makati, the Philippines, accused, without the necessary license or prescription and without being authorized by law, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully, and feloniously sell, distribute and give away zero point zero two (0.02) gram of white crystalline substance containing methamphetamine hydrochloride (shabu), a dangerous drug, in consideration of the sum of Php500.00.

CONTRARY TO LAW.[2]

Criminal Case No. 14-019

On the 3rd day of January 2014, in the city of Makati, the Philippines, accused, not being lawfully authorized to possess or otherwise use any dangerous drug and without the corresponding prescription, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully, and feloniously have in his possession, direct custody and control zero point zero two (0.02) gram of white crystalline substance containing methamphetamine hydrochloride (shabu), which is a dangerous drug, in violation of the above-cited law.

CONTRARY TO LAW.[3]
During the arraignment, Once entered separate pleas of Not Guilty to the offenses charged. Trial on the merits ensued thereafter.[4]

The prosecution's version may be synthesized as follows:

On January 3, 2014, acting on an information regarding the alleged rampant illegal drug activities of a certain Leo Once at Escuela Street, Barangay Guadalupe Nuevo, Makati City, Police Chief Inspector Gaylord Tamayo of the Makati City Police Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Group formed a team to conduct a buy-bust operation with PO2 Marvin Garcia (PO2 Garcia) as the poseur-buyer and PO3 Jesus Turo (PO3 Turo) as the immediate back-up.[5]

As per standard procedure, PO2 Garcia prepared a Coordination Form which was sent to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). The buy-bust money, a five hundred peso (Php500.00) bill was likewise prepared and handed over to PO2 Garcia as evidenced by a petty cash voucher, which the latter signed.[6]

On the same day, the team proceeded to the target area and arrived there at around 7:15 in the evening. They parked their vehicle near a gasoline station while PO2 Garcia and the confidential informant walked towards the place of operations. When the confidential informant saw Once, he approached the latter and told him that PO2 Garcia, acting as the poseur-buyer, was interested in buying shabu. When Once asked how much he was going to buy, PO2 Garcia replied "limang piso lang" referring to five hundred pesos worth of shabu. Once then showed him two (2) plastic sachets and upon receipt of the Php500.00 bill, handed over one (1) sachet to PO2 Garcia and returned the other sachet to his pocket.[7]

The transaction having been consummated, PO2 Garcia executed the pre-arranged signal, by means of removing his bull cap. Thereafter, he grabbed Once and introduced himself as a police officer, while his back-up operatives arrived. PO3 Turo then conducted a body search upon Once and recovered the buy-bust money together with another piece of transparent plastic sachet. They then proceeded to the barangay hall for the marking and inventory of the seized items. PO2 Garcia marked the two (2) plastic sachets recovered from Once and turned them over to the crime laboratory for testing. The laboratory examination on the two (2) plastic sachets yielded positive results for methamphetamine hydrochloride.[8]

A different version was presented by the defense, with accused-appellant Once as its sole witness, to wit:

On January 2, 2014 at around 11:00 o'clock in the evening, Once testified that he was driving a habal-habal with a passenger going to Escuela Street. When they arrived thereat, he was instructed by his passenger to wait as he had to bring the latter back to the terminal. While waiting, he saw people running away and noticed that the house near the place where he was waiting was being destroyed.[9]

He decided to leave but two (2) men approached him and asked what he was doing there. He informed the men that he was waiting for his passenger but they forced him to go with them, with one of the men pointing a gun at him. He identified the two men as PO2 Garcia and PO3 Turo based on what he saw in their nameplates. He was then handcuffed and boarded inside a vehicle where the men asked him if he knew someone named Norma. When he replied in the negative, he was punched at his back and was told to simply make an admission. Once was then brought to the police station where he was detained.[10]

The next day, someone approached Once asking for twenty thousand pesos (Php20,000.00) from him. However, he replied that he did not have the said amount as he was just a habal-habal driver. He was then taken to the barangay hall where photographs of him were taken while being forced to admit to an offense. Once alleged further that he was forced to sign a certain document without knowing its contents. Immediately thereafter, Once stated that he was brought to the fiscal's office where a case regarding illegal drugs was filed against him.[11]

RTC Ruling

On March 10, 2015, the RTC rendered its Decision[12] finding Once guilty, the dispositive portion of which reads:
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, judgment is hereby rendered as follows:

1. In Criminal Case No. 14-018, finding the accused Leo Once y Navarra, GUILTY of the charge for violation of Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 and sentencing him to life imprisonment and to pay a fine of FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND PESOS (Php500,000.00) without subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency; and

2. In Criminal Case No[s]. 14-019, finding the accused Leo Once y Navarra, GUILTY of the charge for violation of Section 11, Article II of RA 9165 and sentencing him to an indeterminate penalty of twelve (12) years and one (1) day to fifteen (15) years of imprisonment and to pay a fine of FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND PESOS (400,000.00) without subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency.

SO ORDERED.[13]
The RTC found the prosecution's version of the events credible and ruled that all the elements of the crime of illegal sale and illegal possession of dangerous drugs are successfully established.[14]Thus, Once elevated the case on appeal to the CA.

CA Ruling

In its August 10, 2016 Decision, the CA affirmed the findings of the RTC in its entirety, thus:
WHEREFORE, the instant appeal is DENIED. The Decision of Regional Trial Court, Branch 64 of Makati City dated 10 March 2015 is AFFIRMED. [15]

SO ORDERED.
The CA held that that RTC did not err in finding that Once's guilt had been established beyond reasonable doubt. It concluded that the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses satisfactorily established the elements of the offenses charged, and that the integrity and evidentiary value of the confiscated shabu were duly preserved.[16]

Hence, the instant appeal.
The Issue

The issue before this Court is whether or not the CA erred in affirming Once's conviction. Once hinges his appeal on the lone allegation that his guilt was not established beyond reasonable doubt due to the police officers' non-compliance with the chain of custody rule prescribed by Section 21 of R.A. 9165.[17]


The Court's Ruling

The appeal is unmeritorious.

To secure a conviction for illegal sale of dangerous drugs, like shabu, the following elements must be established: (1) the identity of the buyer and the seller, the object of the sale, and the consideration; and (2) the delivery of the thing sold and its payment. The prosecution must also prove the illegal sale of the dangerous drugs and present the corpus delicti in court as evidence.[18]

In the instant case, the prosecution adequately established that PO2 Garcia, as the poseur-buyer, bought from herein accused-appellant Once, one (1) sachet of shabu weighing 0.02 gram using the Php500.00 marked money as payment. The seized item was then sent to the crime laboratory and yielded positive results for methamphetamine hydrochloride, a dangerous drug. Thereafter it was presented in court with the proper identification. Evidently, the concurrence of all the foregoing elements sufficiently established Once's guilt for the offense of illegal sale of dangerous drugs.

Likewise, the prosecution convincingly established the existence of all the elements for the offense of illegal possession of dangerous drugs, to wit:

(1) Once was also shown to have been in possession of 0.02 gram of white crystalline substance containing shabu, a prohibited drug; (2) such possession was not authorized by law; and (3) that he freely and consciously possessed the said dangerous drug.[19]

Despite the foregoing, Once resolutely argues that the prosecution's failure to show that the buy-bust team followed the required procedure set forth in Section 21[20] of R.A. 9165 constitutes a deviation that destroys the presumption of regularity in the performance of duty.[21] He contends that the marking of the seized items was not done immediately at the place of the arrest and that no inventory and photographing were conducted in his presence, a representative from the media or the Department of Justice (DOJ). Thus, Once posits that these procedural lapses rendered the identity and integrity of the confiscated dangerous drugs doubtful.[22]

We find no merit in the said arguments.

As correctly ruled by the CA, absent any evidence of bad faith or improper motive on the part of the police officers, the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties prevail. Further, We agree with the CA's findings as regards the preservation of the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items, viz:

In the instant case, the marking of the plastic sachets was done at the barangay hall so that a Kagawad may witness the same. Accused-appellant however failed to point out any irregularity that would taint the evidentiary value of the seized items. When the police officers went to the barangay hall where the marking was to be done, no indication whatsoever was presented to show that the accused-appellant was separated from them in such a way that there could be an opportunity to make a substitution or tampering of the seized items while the police officers are out of sight of the accused-appellant. Being a person arrested for having committed a crime, it necessarily follows that the police officers had to bring with them the accused-appellant wherever they go. Hence, when they went to the barangay hall, where the marking was done, accused-appellant cannot deny his presence thereat. In the absence of countervailing evidence showing any bad faith or improper motive on the part of the police officers, the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties prevail.

As to the inventory of the seized drugs, records show that the same was witnessed by a public official, through Kagawad Jeffrey Baluyut, who placed his signature in [the] inventoiy receipt. This constitutes substantial compliance with the witness requirement of the law as this ensures that the items marked were the same as the items included in the inventory.

While the accused-appellant likewise claims that the prosecution failed to show how the seized items were received by PSI Sahagun, the testimony of PO2 Garcia indicates otherwise. As testified by PO2 Garcia, it was him who delivered the seized items to PSI Sahagun, after PO2 Gimena prepared the chain of custody form and request for laboratory testing.

In sum, accused-appellant failed to point out any glaring gap that would taint the integrity and evidentiary value of the items seized from accused-appellant. When the custody of the seized items was transferred from one official to another, each of them had referred to the same items with the same markings, as written by PO2 Garcia.[23]

Based on the foregoing, the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are shown to have been preserved and the crucial links in the chain of custody were shown to be unbroken - from the time the poseur-buyer seized the drugs from Once, to the time it was brought to the crime laboratory for testing, until the time the same were offered in evidence before the court.

Lastly, Once failed to adduce evidence to overturn the presumption that the buy-bust team regularly performed their duties. Except for his bare allegations, he has not ascribed any improper motive on the part of the police officers as to why the latter would falsely accuse him of selling and possessing shabu. Hence, the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses as to the preservation of the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized illegal drugs deserve full faith and credit.[24]

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the instant appeal is DISMISSED for lack of merit. The Decision dated August 10, 2016 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR HC No. 07574 which affirmed the March 10, 2015 Decision of the Regional Trial Court of Makati City, Branch 64 finding herein accused-appellant LEO ONCE Y NAVARRA guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Sections 5 and 11 of Republic Act No. 9165, sentencing him to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine of Php500,000.00, for violation of Section 5, Article II, Republic Act No. 9165, and imprisonment of twelve (12) years and one (1) day to fifteen (15) years and a fine of Php400,000.00, for violation of Section 11, Article II, Republic Act No. 9165 is hereby AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

[1]Penned by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez and concurred in by Associate Justices Ramon R. Garcia and Maria Elisa Sempio Diy; rollo, pp. 2-12.
[2]CA rollo, p. 39.
[3]Id. at pp. 39-40.
[4]Id.
[5]Rollo, p. 4.
[6]Id.
[7]Id.
[8]Id. at pp. 4-5.
[9]id. at p. 5.
[10]Id.
[11]Id.
[12]Penned by Judge Gina M. Bibat-Palamos, CA rollo, pp. 39-45.
[13]CA rollo, p. 45.
[14]CA rollo, pp. 66-67.
[15]Rollo, p. 12.
[16]Id. at pp. 10-11.
[17]CA rollo, p. 25.
[18]People v. Cutara, G.R. No. 224300, June 7, 2017.
[19]People v. Opiana, G.R. No. 200797, January 12, 2015.
[20](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.
[21]CA rollo, p. 34.
[22]Id. at p. 35.
[23]Rollo, pp. 10-11.
[24]People v. Cutara, G.R. No. 224300, June 7, 2017.

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