SC: If crowded, fear of attack, place of inventory of drugs may be different from where arrest was made

THIRD DIVISION [ G.R. No. 231979, January 08, 2018 ] PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES VS. RODERICK ALEJADO BUCOL.

Before this Court is an appeal from the October 26, 2016 Decision[1] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 01995 upholding the conviction of herein accused-appellant Roderick Alejado Bucol (Bucol) for violation of Section 5 of Republic Act No. 9165 (R.A. 9165), otherwise known as "The Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002."

The Facts

In an Information filed before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Dumaguete City, Branch 30, accused-appellant Bucol was charged with violation of Section 5 of R.A. 9165, the accusatory portion of which reads:
That on or about 11th day of February, 2014 in the city of Dumaguete, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of the Honorable Court, the said accused, not being then authorized by law, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully and feloniously sell and deliver to police poseur buyer one (1) heat sealed transparent plastic sachet containing a total of 0.24 gram of Methamphetamine Hydrochloride commonly called shabu, a dangerous drug.

That accused has been found positive for the use of Methamphetamine, a dangerous drug, as reflected in Chemistry Report No. DT-041-14.

Contrary to Section 5, Article II of R.A. 9165.[2]
Upon arraignment, Bucol pleaded not guilty to the offense charged. Thereafter, trial on the merits ensued.[3]

The prosecution presented the following witnesses: Police Chief Inspector Josephine Llena (PCI Llena), Police Officer 2 Marvin Buenaflor (PO2 Buenaflor), Police Officer 1 Ricknie Briones (PO1 Briones), Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Special Operative 3 Hector Ryan Avenido (SO3 Avenido), PDEA Agent 1 Ivy Claire Oledan (PO1 Oledan), Department of Justice (DOJ) representative Anthony Chilius Benlot, media practitioner Neil Rio, and Barangay Kagawads Emiliano Barba and Julito Zerna, both of Barangay Cadawinonan, Dumaguete City.[4]

The prosecution's version of the events is narrated as follows:

During a debriefing on arrested drug personalities at the office of the Provincial Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Group (PAIDSOTG) of the Negros Oriental Police Provincial Office (NOPPO), it was revealed that a certain Rex is engaged in illegal drug trade at the Cadawinonan Housing Project located at Barangay Cadawinonan, Dumaguete City. Acting on this information, Police Inspector Ryan Jay Orapa (PI Orapa) instructed PO1 Briones and PO2 Buenaflor to conduct a surveillance operation against the said Rex.[5]

On February 7, 2014, PO1 Briones and PO2 Buenaflor proceeded to the Cadawinonan Housing Project where they were introduced by an asset to Rex as interested buyers of shabu. During the said encounter, the two police officers were able to purchase Php500.00 worth of shabu from Rex and confirm the latter's real name is Roderick Bucol.[6]

After another test buy conducted on February 11, 2014, PO1 Briones and PO2 Buenaflor made an arrangement with Bucol for another sale transaction later that day to which Bucol agreed. The two police officers then informed PI Orapa of the said agreement and the latter immediately called for an operational briefing to plan a buy-bust operation against Bucol. PO1 Briones was designated as the poseur-buyer using a marked Php500.00 bill as buy-bust money while PO2 Buenaflor was the immediate back-up. The rest of the team were tasked to position in strategic locations in the area. PO1 Briones then coordinated with the local PDEA office about the impending buy-bust operation through PDEA agent, PO1 Oledan.[7]

Upon arrival at the target area, PO1 Briones and PO2 Buenaflor, together with the asset, saw Bucol and immediately approached him. PO2 Buenaflor informed Bucol in Visayan dialect that he wanted to buy Php500.00 worth of shabu. Bucol then took out one (1) elongated heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet and gave it to PO1 Briones who had the buy-bust money. Upon Bucol's receipt of the Php500.00 marked money, PO1 Briones immediately arrested him.[8]

At the crime scene, PO1 Briones marked the seized item while the rest of the buy-bust team arrived. But as spectators started to gather around the crime scene, the buy-bust team decided to conduct the inventory at the Dumaguete Police Station. Thus, Bucol was brought to the police station together with the heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet and marked money which were in PO1 Briones' custody at all times.[9]

At the police station, PO1 Briones inventoried the confiscated item and the marked money in the presence of Bucol and the required witnesses, namely, Barangay Cadawinonan Kagawads Barba and Zerna, DOJ representative Benlot, and media representative Rio, who all signed the Inventory of Property Seized, including PI Orapa in his capacity as team leader. Photographs were also taken by PO2 Buenaflor during the course of the inventory.[10]

After the inventory, PO1 Briones placed the confiscated item in a tape-sealed brown evidence envelope with his signature and turned over the same to PCI Llena at the Negros Oriental Provincial Crime Laboratory Office where Bucol was also brought for drug testing. PCI Llena then conducted a qualitative examination of the confiscated item which tested positive for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride, a dangerous drug. Likewise, the screening conducted on the urine sample taken from Bucol rendered a positive result for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride. Prior to her submission of the specimen in court, PCI Llena kept the same in the evidence vault of the crime laboratory, which only she has access to.[11]

As for the defense, it presented Bucol as its sole witness whose defenses were predicated on denial and frame-up. His version of the events follows:

At around 5 o'clock in the afternoon of February 11, 2014, Bucol was at Barangay Cadawinonan working on the fence of his house when a female person, known as a certain Cris, arrived and asked him to put up a fence at the latter's house. He acceded and thereafter boarded the car of Cris. When he got inside the car, he noticed a male person who is the husband of Cris. Thereafter, the three of them proceeded towards Barangay Taclobo.[12]

Along the way, they stopped at the intersection where a Star Oil gasoline station is situated. He asked what they were doing there and the couple told him they were waiting for someone. A few minutes later, a van arrived and parked beside them. He was told by Cris to transfer to the van while the couple remained in the car. He did as he was told and boarded the van. Once inside, he noticed two (2) persons including the driver who was police officer Serito Ongy while the other person was PI Orapa. They asked him for the names of the drug sellers in Barangay Cadawinonan but he replied that he did not know anything. He was bodily searched without any explanation and did not complain as he was not being harmed in the process. They eventually stopped at the vicinity of the Dumaguete Police Station and around seven (7) to eight (8) persons boarded the van. They again roamed around and the group kept on asking him as to the identities of the drug sellers in his barangay but he maintained that he had no knowledge whatsoever.[13]

At around 7:00 p.m., the van eventually stopped at Habhaban in Barangay Piapi, Dumaguete City, and they all alighted to eat dinner. After dinner, the police officers handcuffed Bucol and told him that he was being arrested for selling shabu as he did not provide them with the information they needed. He was thereafter brought to the Dumaguete Police Station. Bucol denied selling drugs and he insisted that he had never been in possession of any dangerous drugs at the time of the incident but he admitted to using shabu in the past. He also claimed that he did not see PO1 Briones during the incident.[14]

RTC Ruling

On December 16, 2014, the RTC rendered its Judgment[15] finding Bucol guilty, the dispositive portion of which reads:
WHEREFORE, in the light of the foregoing, the court hereby finds the accused Roderick Alejado Bucol GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of the offense of illegal sale of 0.24 gram of shabu in violation of Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 and is hereby sentenced to suffer a penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine in the amount of Five Hundred Thousand pesos (P500,000.00).

x x x

SO ORDERED.[16]
The RTC gave full credence to the prosecution's version of the events and found that it convincingly established Bucol's guilt beyond reasonable doubt.[17] It rejected Bucol's defenses of denial and frame-up finding that other than his self-serving statements, no clear and convincing exculpatory evidence was presented in court.

Thus, Bucol appealed to the CA.

CA Ruling

In its October 26, 2016 Decision, the CA affirmed the findings of the RTC in its entirety, to wit:
WHEREFORE, the appeal is hereby DENIED. The Decision of the RTC, Branch 30, Dumaguete City, dated December 16, 2014, in Criminal Case No. 2014-22121 is hereby AFFIRMED in toto.

SO ORDERED.[18]
The CA found that all the elements of illegal sale of dangerous drugs are present in the instant case and that the prosecution sufficiently established Bucol's guilt as well as the preservation of the integrity and evidentiary value of the confiscated shabu.[19]

Hence, this appeal.

The Issue

The issue before this Court is whether or not the CA erred in affirming Bucol's conviction. Bucol argues that his guilt was not established beyond reasonable doubt due to alleged peculiar irregularities in the conduct of the buy-bust operation.[20]

The Court's Ruling

The appeal is unmeritorious.

In a prosecution for the illegal sale of dangerous drugs, such as shabu, the following elements must be duly established: (1) the identity of the buyer and seller, the object and the consideration; and (2) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment therefor. The delivery of the illicit drug to the poseur-buyer and the receipt by the seller of the marked money successfully consummate the buy-bust transaction.[21]

In the present case, the prosecution's evidence adequately proved the presence of the foregoing elements. Using the Php500.00 marked money as payment, PO1 Briones bought from herein accused-appellant Bucol one (1) sachet of shabu weighing 0.24 gram which turned out to be positive for methamphetamine hydrochloride, a dangerous drug. Bucol's act of handing over the shabu after receiving the Php500.00 buy-bust money handed by PO1 Briones is sufficient to consummate the sale of illegal drugs. Verily, Bucol's guilt for the offense of illegal sale of dangerous drugs had been sufficiently established.

However, in arguing for his acquittal, Bucol advances the theory that the corpus delicti of the crime was not established by the prosecution since the chain of custody rule provided under Section 21[22] of R.A. 9165 was not observed by the arresting officers, particularly the inventory and photographing of the seized item which was not conducted at the crime scene.[23]

We disagree.After the sale of shabu was consummated, PO1 Briones immediately marked the seized illegal drugs and affixed his signature thereon while the rest of the buy-bust team arrived at the crime scene. Although the inventory and photograph taking of the said illegal drugs were not conducted thereat, the CA correctly found that the members of the buy-bust team had a justifiable reason in doing so, viz:
In this case, as adequately explained by PO1 Briones, it was no longer practicable to undertake the preparation of the inventory and taking of photographs at the scene of the crime considering that after the arrest of Bucol, several people in the vicinity proceeded to the scene of the crime and the area became crowded with spectators and there was also fear of reprisal from Bucol's family/relatives in the area. In fact, there was a possibility that the integrity of the evidence could be compromised if the buy-bust team had remained at the crime scene. Thus, the buy-bust team exercised reasonable judgment in pulling out from the area and going directly to the nearby police station for the inventory and photograph of the seized shabu.[24]
At the police station, the seized shabu, which was in PO1 Briones' custody the entire time, was properly inventoried and documented. Thereafter, a request for its laboratory examination was prepared and the same seized sachet of shabu was sent to the PNP Crime Laboratory which yielded positive results for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride, a dangerous drug. When the prosecution presented the seized sachet of shabu in court, PO1 Briones positively identified it to be the same illegal drug seized from Bucol. Further, the prosecution was able to present and identify the marked money in court.

Thus, contrary to Bucol's claim, the crucial links in the chain of custody of the seized dangerous drug were shown to be unbroken - from the time the poseur-buyer seized the drugs from Bucol, to the time it was brought to the crime laboratory for testing, until the time the same were offered in evidence before the court.

It is worthy to note that a testimony about a perfect chain is not always the standard as it is almost always impossible to obtain an unbroken chain. What is of utmost importance is the preservation of the integrity and the evidential value of the seized items as the same would be utilized in the determination of the guilt or innocence of the accused. In sum, the totality of the prosecution's evidence undeniably shows that the integrity of the seized items had been duly preserved and its chain of custody had been accounted for. Thus, Bucol's guilt for illegal selling of shabu had been sufficiently proved beyond reasonable doubt.[25]

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the instant appeal is DISMISSED for lack of merit. The Decision dated October 26, 2016 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 01995 which affirmed the December 16, 2014 Decision of the Regional Trial Court of Dumaguete City, Branch 30 finding herein accused-appellant Roderick Alejado Bucol guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 5 of Republic Act No. 9165 and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to pay a fine of Php500,000.00 is hereby AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

[1] Penned by Associate Justice Edward B. Contreras and concurred in by Associate Justices Edgardo L. Delos Santos and Geraldine C. Fiel-Macaraig; rollo, pp. 4-17.[2] CA rollo, p. 37.
[3] Id.
[4] Rollo, p. 5.
[5] Id. at 5-6.
[6] Id. at 6.
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at 7.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. at 7-8.
[12] Id. at 8.
[13] Id. at 8-9.
[14] Id. at 9.
[15] Penned by Judge Rafael Cresencio C. Tan, Jr., CA rollo, pp. 37-49.
[16] Id. at 48-49.
[17] Id. at 47-48.
[18] Rollo, p. 17.
[19] Id. at 14-16.
[20] Id. at 10.
[21] People v. Cabiles, G.R. No. 220758, June 7, 2017.
[22] (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.
[23] CA rollo, p. 31.
[24] Rollo, p. 12.
[25] People v. Cutara, G.R. No. 224300, June 7, 2017.

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