Broken custodial link in handling drug evidence

Even if the arresting officers failed to strictly comply with the requirements provided in Section 21 of the anti-drugs law, noncompliance with the regulations is not necessarily fatal as to render an accused’s arrest illegal or the items confiscated from him inadmissible as evidence of his guilt, for what is of the utmost importance is the preservation of the integrity and the evidentiary value of the confiscated items that will be utilized in the determination of his guilt or innocence.[1] Such that, when there is a failure to follow strictly the said procedure, the crime can still be proven, i.e., that the noncompliance was under justifiable grounds or that the illegal drug taken is the same one presented in court by proof of “chain of custody”.

The last paragraph of Section 21(a) of the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of Republic Act No. 9165 provides a saving mechanism to ensure that not every case of noncompliance irreversibly prejudices the State’s evidence, to wit:
(a) The apprehending office/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: Provided, that the physical inventory and photograph shall be conducted at the place where the search warrant is served; or at the nearest police station or at the nearest office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable, in case of warrantless seizures; Provided, further that non-compliance with these requirements under justifiable grounds, as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team, shall not render void and invalid such seizures of and custody over said items; (Emphasis and Underscoring supplied)
As thus provided, noncompliance with the enumerated requirements in Section 21 of the law does not automatically exonerate the accused. Upon proof that noncompliance was due to justifiable grounds, and that the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team, the seizure and custody over said items are not, by the noncompliance, rendered void. This is the “chain of custody” rule.

In Mallillin v. People,[2] the Supreme Court explained that the “chain of custody” requirement ensures that unnecessary doubts concerning the identity of the evidence are removed. The chain of evidence is constructed by proper exhibit handling, storage, labelling and recording, and must exist from the time the evidence is found until the time it is offered in evidence.[3] Failure to prove that the specimen submitted for laboratory examination was the same one allegedly seized from accused is fatal to the prosecution’s case. When there are doubts on whether the item confiscated was the same specimen examined and established to be the prohibited drug, there can be no crime of illegal possession or illegal sale of a prohibited drug.[4]

In the chain of custody, the marking immediately after seizure is the starting point in the custodial link. Thereafter, the specimen shall undergo different processes and will inevitably be passed on to different persons. Thus, it is vital that there be an unbroken link in the chain to obviate switching, “planting,” or contamination of evidence,[5] a fortiori, to segregate the marked evidence from the corpus of all other similar and related evidence from the time they are seized from the accused until they are disposed of at the end of the criminal proceedings.[6]

[1] People v. Pringas, 558 Phil. 579, 593 (2007).

[2] 576 Phil. 576 (2008).

[3] Valdez v. People, 563 Phil. 934, 954 (2007).

[4] Id. at 951-952.

[5] People v. Denoman, G.R. No. 171732, 14 August 2009, 596 SCRA 257, 267.

[6] Id.