Reasonable doubt in chain of custody of drugs

The unique characteristic of dangerous and illegal drugs renders imperative strict compliance with the prescribed measures to be observed during and after the seizure of dangerous drugs and related paraphernalia, during the custody and transfer thereof for examination, and at all times up to their presentation in court.[1] For example, conflicting testimonies of the police officers and lack of evidence lead to a reasonable conclusion that no markings were actually made on the seized items. Moreover, reasonable doubt is created when photographs which the prosecution witnesses claim to have been taken after the seizure do neither appear on the records nor were they presented or offered as evidence.[2] In such situations, a substantial gap in the chain of custody renders the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti dubious.The Supreme Court ruled in People v. Kamad[3] that the links that must be established in the chain of custody in a buy-bust situation are: first, the seizure and marking, if practicable, 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 from the forensic chemist to the court.[4]

In Lopez v. People[5], the Supreme Court found that there were indeed substantial gaps in the chain of custody from the initial stage with the apparent lack of markings. Upon confiscation of the shabu, the prosecution witnesses never recounted which police officer had initial control and custody upon their confiscation and while in transit. At the police station, nobody witnessed if and how the seized items were marked. SPO4 Bognalos alleged that it was the Chief of Police who forwarded the seized sachets to the crime laboratory, while PO3 Telado intimated that it was the investigator who turned them over to the crime laboratory. Their records were likewise bereft of any detail as to who exercised custody and possession of the seized items after their chemical examination and before they were offered as evidence in court. All these weak links in the chain of custody significantly affected the integrity of the items seized, which in turn, created a reasonable doubt on the guilt of the accused. As a result, the High Court was constrained to acquit petitioner Lopez based on reasonable doubt.

[1] People v. Nacua, G.R. No. 200165, 30 January 2013, 689 SCRA 819, 832 citing People v. Magpayo, G.R. No. 187069, 20 October 2010, 634 SCRA 441, 449.

[2] Lopez v. People, G.R. No. 188653, January 29, 2014.

[3] G.R. No. 174198, 19 January 2010, 610 SCRA 295.

[4] Id. at 307-308.

[5] Lopez v. People, G.R. No. 188653, January 29, 2014.