Perfect chain of custody rule; storage of illegal drugs

In illegal drugs cases, the drug itself constitutes the corpus delicti of the offense. The prosecution is, therefore, tasked to establish that the substance illegally possessed by the accused is the same substance presented in court.[1]

To ensure the integrity of the seized drug item, the prosecution must account for each link in its chain of custody:[2] first, the seizure and marking of the illegal drug recovered from the accused by the apprehending officer; second, the turnover of the illegal drug seized by the apprehending officer to the investigating officer; third, the turnover by the investigating officer of the illegal drug to the forensic chemist for laboratory examination; and fourth, the turnover and submission of the marked illegal drug seized by the forensic chemist to the court.[3]

This is the chain of custody rule. It came to fore due to the unique characteristics of illegal drugs which render them indistinct, not readily identifiable, and easily open to tampering, alteration, or substitution either by accident or otherwise.[4]

As defined in Section 1(b) of Dangerous Drugs Board Regulation No. 1, Series of 2002, "chain of custody" means the duly recorded authorized movements and custody of seized drugs or controlled chemicals or plant sources of dangerous drugs or laboratory equipment of each stage, from the time of seizure/confiscation to receipt in the forensic laboratory to safekeeping to presentation in court for destruction. Such record of movements and custody of seized item shall include the identity and signature of the person who held temporary custody of the seized item, the date and time when such transfer of custody were made in the course of safekeeping and use in court as evidence, and the final disposition.

In People v. Ubungen[5] the Court ruled that absent any testimony on the management, storage, and preservation of the seized illegal drug, the fourth link in the chain of custody could not be reasonably established.

Indeed, the repeated breach of the chain of custody rule here had cast serious uncertainty on the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti. The metaphorical chain did not link at all, albeit it unjustly restrained petitioner's right to liberty. Verily, therefore, a verdict of acquittal is in order.

Strict adherence to the chain of custody rule must be observed;[6] the precautionary measures employed in every transfer of the seized drug item, proved to a moral certainty. The sheer ease of planting drug evidence vis-a-vis the severity of the imposable penalties in drugs cases compels strict compliance with the chain of custody rule.

The Supreme Court has clarified, though, that a perfect chain may be impossible to obtain at all times because of varying field conditions.[7] In fact, the Implementing Rules and Regulations of RA 9165 offers a saving clause allowing leniency whenever justifiable grounds exist which warrant deviation from established protocol so long as the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved.[8] The prosecution's witnesses, however, did not even offer any excuse for the deviation from the strict requisites of the law.In People v. Victoria (G.R. No. 238613. August 19, 2019), the condition for the saving clause to become operational was not complied with. For the same reason, the proviso "so long as the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved," too, did not come into play.

For perspective, life imprisonment is imposed for unauthorized sale of dangerous drugs even for the minutest amount. It, thus, becomes inevitable that safeguards against abuses of power in the conduct of buy-bust operations be strictly implemented. The purpose is to eliminate wrongful arrests and, worse, convictions. The evils of switching, planting or contamination of the corpus delicti under the regime of RA 6425, otherwise known as the "Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972," could again be resurrected if the lawful requirements were otherwise lightly brushed aside.[9]

As show by the facts in People v. Victoria, the chain of custody was breached several times over; the metaphorical chain, irreparably broken. Consequently, the identity and integrity of the seized drug item were not deemed to have been preserved. Perforce, the accused must be unshackled, acquitted, and released from restraint.[10]

Suffice it to state that the presumption of regularity in the performance of official functions[11] cannot substitute for compliance and mend the broken links. For it is a mere disputable presumption that cannot prevail over clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.[12] In the above cited case, the presumption was amply overturned, nay, overthrown by compelling evidence on record of the repeated breach of the chain of custody rule. (G.R. No. 238613. August 19, 2019)

[1] People v. Barte, 806 Phil. 533, 542 (2017).
[2] As defined in Section 1(b) of Dangerous Drugs Board Regulation No. 1, Series of 2002
[3] People v. Dahil, 750 Phil. 212, 231 (2015).
[4] People v. Hementiza, 807 Phil. 1017, 1026 (2017).
[5] G.R. No. 225497, July 23, 2018.
[6] People v. Lim, G.R. No. 231989, September 4, 2018.
[7] See People v. Abetong, 735 Phil. 476, 485 (2014).
[8] See Section 21 (a), Article II, of the IRR of RA 9165.
[9] See People v. Luna, G.R. No. 219164, March 21, 2018.
[10] See People v. Jocson, G.R. No. 199644, June 19, 2019.
[11] Section 3 (m), Rule 131, Rules of Court.
[12] People v. Cabilies, 810 Phil. 969, 976-977 (2017).