G.R. No. 200079. Jan. 15, 2014

FIRST DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 200079, January 15, 2014 ]
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES V. LINGCOLN HADGIROL Y MINDA.

We resolve the appeal filed by accused Lingcoln Hadgirol y Minda (appellant Hadgirol) from the 28 February 2011 Decision of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 04281.[1] Appellant Hadgirol was convicted of the crime of illegal sale of dangerous drugs, particularly shabu, and was sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of P500,000. This is his final appeal after the CA affirmed his conviction by the lower court.

The Facts

The undisputed facts as culled from the CA records are as follows:
On July 29, 2008, at around 6:30 in the evening, the District Anti-Illegal Drugs-Special Operation Task Group (DAID-SOTG) of Quezon City Police District, through its Officer-in-Charge P/Supt. Milo Pagtalunan, received a report from its confidential informant that a certain "Midz" was engaged in illegal drug-trade activities at Salam Mosque Compound, Barangay Culiat, Tandang Sora, Quezon City.

After evaluating the report, P/Supt. Pagtalunan immediately planned an entrapment operation. He appointed Senior P/Insp. Harry Lorenzo III to lead the entrapment team and instructed SPO2 Arnold Yu to act as poseur buyer. P/Supt. Pagtalunan also prepared and gave the buy-bust money worth P500.00 to SPO2 Yu who marked it with his initials "AHY". A pre-operation report was then forwarded to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. After coordinating with the PDEA, the entrapment team together with the confidential informant proceeded to Salam Mosque Compound.

When they reached the target area, members of the team strategically positioned themselves while others acted as perimeter security. Later, SPO2 Yu and the informant entered the compound and saw a man standing in front of a sari-sari store. The informant whispered to SPO2 Yu and identified the man as Midz. The informant then approached Midz and introduced SPO2 Yu saying "ito yung sinasabi ko na kukuha." Midz then asked "atin ba yan?," and the informant answered "atin yan hindi kalaban." Convinced, Midz took out from his pocket one plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance and gave it to SPO2 Yu who, in turn, handed the buy-bust money. SPO2 Yu, then lighted his cigarette which served as the pre-arranged signal that the transaction has been consummated.

Consequently, PO1 Percival Kalbi rushed in to assist SPO2 Yu. They introduced themselves as police officers, frisked Midz and informed him of his constitutional rights. PO1 Kalbi recovered from Midz the buy-bust money and SPO2 Yu put his initials "AHY-07-29-08" on the plastic sachet. However, while SPO2 Yu was marking the sachet, Midz' relatives arrived and started to throw stones at them. To prevent serious encounter, the entrapment team decided to immediately withdraw from the place and went back to the police station.At the station, Midz and the seized items were endorsed to case investigator PO2 Carlito Gula, Jr. During the investigation, Midz was asked his full name, and he answered Lingcoln Hadgirol (Hadgirol). PO2 Gula. Jr. then took photographs of the suspect and the confiscated items. He also prepared an inventory receipt and a request for laboratory examination. Later that night, SPO2 Yu and PO1 Kalbi personally delivered the request and the seized plastic sachet to forensic chemist May Andrea Bonifacio.

After a series of tests, the Chemistry Report confirmed that the seized plastic sachet was positive for 0.05 gram of methyl amphetamine hydrochloride or shabu. The chemist then placed the specimen in a bigger plastic and marked it with her initials "MAAB D-377-08." With these findings, Hadgirol was charged with the crime of illegal sale of dangerous drugs.

Hadgirol denied the accusation. He claimed that at the time of the incident he was praying inside his house. Suddenly, several armed men arrived and frisked him. Hadgirol added that the police officers were actually chasing two other men who entered his house. But, when the police officers failed to accost the two men. he was arrested instead, handcuffed and brought to the police station.[2]
Decision of the RTC

Appellant was charged before the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City, Branch 103, with the sale of illegal drugs, after which a full trial on the merits ensued. On 16 November 2009, the trial court promulgated a Decision convicting appellant. The dispositive portion of the Decision which reads:
ACCORDINGLY, judgment is rendered finding the accused LINCOLN HADGIROL Y MINDA, GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of the offense of violation of Section 5, RA 9165 (for drug pushing) as charged and he is hereby sentenced to a jail term of LIFE IMPRISONMENT and to pay a fine of P500,000.00 to be remitted to the PDEA upon payment as provided for in RA 9165.

The sachet involved in this case is ordered transmitted to PDEA through DDB for disposal as per RA 9165.

SO ORDERED.[3]
Decision of the Court of Appeals

On appeal, the Court of Appeals, through its Special Fifteenth Division, affirmed the assailed RTC Decision. The main issue at the appellate level was whether the police officers complied with the proper handling and custody of the dangerous drugs seized from appellant during the buy-bust operation.

The CA found that the sale of the illegal drugs confiscated from appellant was consummated, as all the elements to prove it were present. It ruled that the records of the case showed there was a previous negotiation between appellant and the confidential informant for the purchase of shabu in the amount of P500. The CA noted that Senior Police Officer 2 (SPO2) Yu, the poseur-buyer, testified with regard to the circumstances of the sale of the illegal drugs. Further, the prosecution showed the results of the laboratory examination, which proved that the item confiscated from appellant was indeed shabu, a prohibited drug under Republic Act (R.A.) 9165.

The CA also ruled that the prosecution was able to satisfactorily establish that the substance recovered from appellant at the scene of the buy-bust operation was the same evidence introduced in court. Thus, it affirmed the RTC's conviction of the accused:
Hence the trial court correctly imposed the penalty of life imprisonment and fine within the range provided by law.

FOR THESE REASONS, the appeal is DENIED. The November 16, 2009 Decision of the Regional Trial Court finding the accused-appellant LINGCOLN HADGIROL guilty of illegal sale of dangerous drugs is AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.[4]
Issues

Appellant now comes to this Court praying for his acquittal based on the following grounds: 1) not all the elements of the sale of illegal drugs were present, and 2) the chain of custody of the drugs allegedly seized from appellant during the buy-bust operation was not sufficiently established.[5]

The Ruling of the Court

We DENY the appeal and AFFIRM the assailed CA Decision.

Sale of illegal drugs established

On the issue of whether the elements of the illegal sale of drugs were established, we sustain the ruling of the CA. It correctly held that the illegal sale of a dangerous drug in the instant case was consummated as the following elements were sufficiently established by the prosecution: 1) that the transaction took place; 2) that the corpus delicti or the illicit drug was presented as evidence; and 3) that the buyer and the seller were identified.[6] The CA ruling is based on the factual findings by the RTC that a previous negotiation for the sale of drugs was made.[7] SPO2 Yu, the poseur-buyer, testified in court as to the sale of illegal drugs by the appellant to him,[8] as well as the attendant circumstances that led to the latter's arrest. It is clear from the testimony, as quoted by the CA from the case records, that it was appellant who sold the illegal drugs to SPO2 Yu. The prosecution also presented the results of the laboratory examination on the drugs seized from appellant during the buy-bust operation. It is notable that this laboratory result remains uncontested by the appellant.[9]

Arguing for his acquittal, appellant points out that the prosecution failed to present the confidential informant in court and that the testimony of SPO2 Yu alone is not sufficient to warrant his conviction. We disagree with appellant.

We have consistently ruled that the nonpresentation of the confidential informant is not fatal to the prosecution. These informants are usually not presented in court because of the need to hide their identities and maintain their valuable services to the police.[10] The only instance where the testimony of the confidential informant becomes necessary is when the informant is the only witness to the illegal transaction.[11]

In the instant case, SPO2 Yu, the poseur-buyer, testified on the circumstances attending the buy-bust operation. He identified appellant in open court as the person who had sold him the illegal drugs.[12] Thus, in view of the presence of an eyewitness, the presentation of the confidential informant can be dispensed with in this case.

Appellant vigorously denies what transpired during the buy-bust operation and avers that the testimony of SPO2 Yu is not sufficient to establish that he indeed sold the illegal drugs.[13] We find this argument untenable. It fails to convince us to believe otherwise in the face of the straightforward testimony of SPO2 Yu. It is worthy of note that appellant has not convincingly imputed on the part of the members of the buy-bust team any malicious motive that would validate his claim of frame-up or of being a fall guy in this case. Thus, we hold in this case a presumption of regularity on the part of the police officers involved when they performed their duties during the buy-bust operation.[14]

Chain of custody unbroken

Appellant questions the integrity of the evidence presented in court. He avers that the chain of custody of the drugs allegedly seized from him was not sufficiently established and, thus, he is entitled to an acquittal.

We have examined the records of the case and found no reason to reverse the CA.

The RTC found that the evidence seized from appellant was properly labelled and handled after his apprehension. On this point, the trial court made the following factual findings:
  1. PO Yu used a P500.00 bill and not any other amount because as he explained in his cross-testimony, that was the amount negotiated by the informant with alias Midz while the said informant was talking to alias Midz by cellphone and negotiating a deal;
  2. PO Yu marked said money bill at their station with his initials AHY. That bill so marked was the one taken by PO Kalbi from the accused when he was arrested and the same one surrendered to the station investigator Gula, Jr. and made one of the subjects of the inventory receipt and photograph made during the investigation at the DAID office at Camp Karingal;
  3. PO Yu's testimony regarding his purchase of a sachet of shabu from the accused whom he identified in court is corroborated by the testimony of PO Kalbi who testified that he saw PO Yu and their informant talking to the accused Hadgirol, the exchange of money and sachet between them, and the pre-arranged signal PO Yu made, in addition to the fact that PO Kalbi testified that he seized the marked money from the accused;
  4. (T)he sachet PO Yu obtained from the accused was marked by PO Yu right at the crime scene with AHY 07-09-08 in compliance with the ruling of the Supreme Court in several cases;
  5. (T)he buy bust team intended to make also an inventory of that seized items at the crime scene but the policemen were prevented from doing so because several persons arrived and started throwing stones at the police for which reason they decided to leave the crime scene to avoid what could have been a serious encounter, if not a bloody one;
  6. (T)he inventory of the seized sachet purchased by PO Yu from the accused and the marked money was made immediately upon the arrival of the buy bust team to their office. The sale of shabu was made at about 10:45 PM and the inventory was made at 11:00 PM which means less than 30 minutes have transpired between the arrest of the accused and the making thereof. After that inventory, a photograph of the accused and the seized item was also taken (Exhs. J and K). These acts were done "immediately after seizure and confiscation" in compliance with Section 21 of RA 9165;
  7. (A)dmittedly, there was no DOJ, media or local government elected public official at the making of the inventory and photograph-taking but, in the court's opinion, this is not an indispensable requisite of Section 21 of RA 9165 because said section reads that in the making of the inventory and photograph "the same in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom the items were confiscated and/or seized OR his/her representative or counsel, a representative from media and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and any elective public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given copy thereof." Thus, the way the court reads it the presence of a DOJ, media or public local official in the making of the inventory is merely in the alternative of the accused or the person from whom the illegal drug was seized. For it is indeed impossible that the inventory receipt when being made could not be done in the presence of the accused or the person from whom the item was seized, as for instance, when the accused or person from whom the illegal item was seized had been previously shot but alive or injured necessitating his/her emergency delivery to a doctor, or the accused or person from whom the item was seized was able to escape by scampering away or injuring the arresting officer, or only circumstantial evidence point to the accused as the owner of the seized dangerous drug or a state witness points to him as such;
  8. (M)oreover, the inventory that the buy bust team intended to be made at the crime scene right after the marking of the sachet at bench could not be made because a number of persons started throwing stones at PO Yu and PO Kalbi. The court is of the view that those officers are thereby justified in leaving the place, not only could they get hurt as the throwing of stones by Muslims seems part of their culture but as we have read it, but also in the process Hadgirol could have an opportunity thereby to escape from [the] hold of the police.
  9. (A)s testified by PO Yu and borne out by the documents offered in this case, after the inventory and taking of photograph, he himself, in the company of PO Kalbi, brought the seized sachet that same evening immediately to the PNP Crime Laboratory for examination as requested in writing. At the laboratory, forensic chemist Ms. May Andrea A. Bonifacio received it and put her markings thereon. She examined it at [0205 H] of July 30, 2008 after receiving the sachet at 2305 H of July 29, 2008 and came up with a positive result. Forensic Chemist Bonifacio, who also noted in her sworn Chemistry Report the markings on the sachet, was the one who brought the same to this court as evidence.[15]
Appellant vigorously asserts in his Supplemental Brief that the police officers did not strictly follow Section 21 of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of R.A. 9165, which refers to the photographing of the seized items and conduct of inventory in the presence of a Department of Justice (DOJ) representative, the media or barangay officials. Appellant argues that due to this alleged lapse on the part of the police officers, he is entitled to an acquittal.

We cannot sustain the argument of appellant on this point.

We have scrutinized the records and found that the CA made a finding of fact similar to that of the RTC. The appellate court recognized the importance of preserving the integrity of the substance confiscated from appellant - the substance must be the same one presented as evidence in court. From the records of the case, we affirm the findings of the appellate court that the prosecution was able to establish an unbroken chain of custody of the evidence in this wise:
In the present case, the prosecution satisfactorily established the movement and custody of the seized drug through the following links:

(1) SPO2 Yu marked at the crime scene the plastic sachet seized from the accused with his initials "'AHY-07-29-08;"

(2) At the police station, SPO2 Yu turned over the seized item to case investigator PO2 Carlito Gula, Jr., who took photographs of the same. PO2 Gula Jr. also prepared an inventory and a request for laboratory examination of the confiscated item;

(3) SPO2 Yu and PO1 Kalbi personally delivered the request and the seized plastic sachet to forensic chemist May Andrea Bonifacio;

(4) Chemistry Report No. D-377-08 confirmed that the marked item seized from the accused contained shabu. The chemist then placed the specimen in a bigger plastic and marked it with her initials "MAAB D-377-08;" and

(5) The forensic chemist forwarded the specimen in court and was offered in evidence as Exhibit 1.[16]
Although it is obvious that Section 21 of R.A. 9165 was not strictly followed to the letter, such noncompliance still does not warrant the reversal of appellant's conviction. In Masajo v. People,[17] we have ruled that noncompliance with the procedure shall not render void and invalid the seizure and custody of the drugs when the noncompliance is attended by justifiable grounds, and the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending team.

Recently, in People v. Gonzales,[18] we have explained, by way of exception, that noncompliance with the procedures delineated and set forth in R.A. 9165 and its IRR would not necessarily invalidate the seizure and custody of the dangerous drugs, provided that there were justifiable grounds for the noncompliance, and provided that the integrity of the evidence of the corpus delicti was preserved. The case further clarified that noncompliance with the procedures, to be excusable, must have to be justified by the State's agents themselves.

In this case, the CA succinctly discussed this issue raised by appellant. It found that the police team involved in the buy-bust operation was prevented from following provisions to the letter by an intervening event:
Here, what was involved is a buy-bust operation where no search warrant is required. Corollarily, the inventory and photography of the seized item may be done at the nearest police station or office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable. Notably, there was an attempt on the part of the arresting officers to prepare an inventory of the seized item at the crime scene. However, they were prevented when Hadgirol's relatives arrived and started to throw stones at them.

Neither the absence of a representative from the DOJ, the media or an elected official is necessarily fatal. xxx.

In this case, nonetheless, there was an attempt on the part of the police officers to summon the presence of barangay officials during the buy-bust operation, but they were not available at that time. Hence, the physical inventory and photograph of the seized item were made in the presence of the accused, We find these as substantial compliance with the law. The testimonies of prosecution witnesses also convincingly show an unbroken chain of custody of the dangerous drug from the time of buy-bust operation until it was examined at the PNP crime laboratory, all of which took place only in a matter of hours. As there is no proof to support the claim that the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized item have been compromised at some stage, We find that what was recovered from Hadgirol was the same illegal drug presented in the trial court. Any unnecessary doubts concerning the identity of the evidence are removed.[19]
Given the circumstances, we have no reason to doubt the integrity of the evidence presented by the prosecution. The illegal drug seized from appellant during the buy-bust operation was the same specimen examined and presented in court. Both the CA and the RTC have congruent findings of fact that illustrate the unbroken chain of custody of the seized drug from appellant. Hence, we accord much weight to the RTC's findings of facts, especially when affirmed by the CA,[20] as in this case.

We also find that the CA correctly sustained the RTC ruling that sentenced appellant to life imprisonment and meted out to him a fine of P500,000.

WHEREFORE, the 28 February 2011 Decision of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 04281 is hereby AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

[1] The Decision dated 28 February 2011 of the CA Special Fifteenth Division was penned by Associate Justice Mario V. Lopez and concurred in by Associate Justices Magdangal M. de Leon and Franchito N. Diamante; rollo, pp. 2-12.[2] Rollo, pp. 2-5.
[3] The Decision in Criminal Case No. Q-08-153325 was penned by the Honorable Jaime N. Salazar, Jr., Presiding Judge of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City, Branch 103. CA rollo, p. 97.
[4] Rollo, p. 12.
[5] Id. at 31.
[6] Id. at 6.
[7] CA rollo, p. 20.
[8] Rollo, pp. 6-7.
[9] Id. at 8.
[10] People v. Blanco, G.R. No. 193661, 14 August 2013.
[11] People v. Sanuario, G.R. No. 185276, 06 March 2013.
[12] Rollo, p. 7.
[13] Id. at 33.
[14] People v. Castro, G.R. No. 195777, 19 June 2013, citing People v. Tion, G.R. No. 172092, 608 SCRA 299 (2009).
[15] CA rollo, pp. 20-22.
[16] Rollo, p. 8.
[17] G.R. No. 207934, 11 September 2013.
[18] G.R. No. 182417, 03 April 2013, 695 SCRA 123.
[19] Rollo, pp. 9-11.
[20] People v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 161083, 03 August 2010, 626 SCTA 352, 374.

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