SC rebukes gov’t: Rights abuses and failure to follow chain of custody makes it war on people, not drugs

“A battle waged against illegal drugs that tramples on the rights of the people is not a war on drugs. It is a war against the people,” the Supreme Court (SC) said, as it stressed the burden of the government to present evidence to overcome the presumption of innocence of drug suspects.

The SC issued this rebuke in its decision to acquit Armie Narvas, on the ground that the inventory of the drugs allegedly seized during a March 2, 2011 buybust operation was “highly doubtful and questionable to say the least.”

In its strongly-worded 18-page decision, the SC 2nd Division granted Narvas’s appeal on the unfavorable June 13, 2016 and December 6, 2017 rulings of the Dagupan City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 40 and the Court of Appeals (CA).

The SC ordered Narvas’s immediate release from detention unless he is being lawfully held for another cause. It directed the immediate issuance of an entry of final judgment, making the decision unappealable.

It said the prosecution failed to prove the compliance of authorities with the “chain of custody” rule under Section 21 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

It stressed that the chain of custody rule must be strictly followed to prevent “the evils of switching, ‘planting’ or contamination of the evidence that had tainted the buy-busts” conducted under the old Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972.

In Narvas’s case, the investigator named as the one who conducted the inventory and picture-taking of the allegedly seized drugs denied doing so, since he was not present at the crime scene and only received the sachets at the police station.

The investigator, SPO1 Raymundo Bauzon, said the inventory receipt was only prepared in his office and not at the scene of the buybust. He added that he did not recall an examination actually being conducted on the drug specimens.

There was also no photograph of the allegedly seized sachets at the crime scene. The sachets were only photographed on a table obviously taken inside an office.

The marking of the sachets was also deemed irregular because only the initials of the police officers were written, and not the date, time and place of confiscation.

The testimonies were not even consistent, as the police witnesses identified different sachets to be the ones supposedly seized from Narvas.

PO2 Christopher Idos also testified that the information regarding Narvas’s supposed drug-selling came from a tip, only to contradict himself during cross-examination when he claimed that surveillance operations were conducted before the buybust.

The SC also questioned the prosecution’s failure to explain why only local barangay officials were present as witnesses, when the law also requires a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DoJ).

It stressed that the three-witness requirement was meant to “controvert the usual defense of frame-up.” Without the witnesses, this purpose could not be achieved.

The SC said these lapses could not be brushed off as minor matters, and lamented that the RTC and the CA “seriously overlooked the long-standing legal tenet that the starting point of every criminal prosecution is that the accused has the constitutional right to be presumed innocent.”

It clarified that the presumption of regularity only serves as an evidentiary tool that “by no means defeat the much stronger and much firmer presumption of innocence in favor of every person whose life, property and liberty comes under the risk of forfeiture on the strength of a false accusation of committing some crime.”

“It is worth emphasizing that this burden of proof never shifts. Indeed, the accused need not present a single piece of evidence in his defense if the State has not discharged its onus. The accused can simply rely on his right to be presumed innocent,” read the decision penned by Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.

The SC said “we should remind ourselves that we cannot presume that the accused committed the crimes they have been charged with.”

“The State must fully establish that for us. If the imputation of ill motive to the lawmen is the only means of impeaching them, then that would be the end of our dutiful vigilance to protect our citizenry from false arrests and wrongful incriminations. We are aware that there have been in the past many cases of false arrests and wrongful incriminations, and that should heighten our resolve to strengthen the ramparts of judicial scrutiny,” it added. #

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