Citing PDEA lapses, SC frees man jailed since 2010 over 0.02-gram ‘shabu’
The Supreme Court has ordered the release of a drug suspect arrested in Cagayan de Oro City eight years ago for possession of a sachet of “shabu” (crystal meth), and admonished the authorities to be more careful in investigating and filing cases.
Saying “poorly built-up cases” should be “weed[ed] out early from the courts’ already congested docket,” the high tribunal also laid down a mandatory policy for law enforcers, investigating prosecutors and courts in the custody and disposition of confiscated and surrendered illegal drugs.
In an 18-page unanimous decision written by Justice Diosdado Peralta and dated Sept. 4, the Supreme Court reversed the Feb. 23, 2017, ruling of the Court of Appeals (CA), which found Romy Lim guilty of possessing and illegal sale of dangerous drugs under Article II of Republic Act No. 9165.
The appeals court had affirmed the Sept. 24, 2013, judgment of the Cagayan de Oro City Regional Trial Court (RTC).
Lim was sentenced to 13 years in prison for drug possession and to life imprisonment for drug pushing.
Lim was arrested on Oct. 19, 2010, during a buy-bust operation conducted by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
The narcotics agents claimed they seized from Lim a transparent sachet containing 0.02 gram of shabu. Lim’s stepson, who was also arrested in the operation, was acquitted by the RTC.
In ordering Lim’s immediate release, the high tribunal said the accused should be acquitted on reasonable doubt because several guidelines were not met by the arresting officers and the investigating prosecutor.
The justices noted for instance the absence of any elected public official and representatives of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the media in the physical inventory and photographing of the items seized from Lim.
“In fact, their signatures do not appear in the inventory receipt,” the justices said. “Earnest effort to secure the attendance of the necessary witnesses must be proven.”
The high court also said that in the sworn statements, the apprehending officers must state their compliance with the requirements on the custody and disposition of confiscated drugs, or with the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, and its implementing rules and regulations.
Must explain noncompliance
In case of nonobservance of the provision, the high court said that apprehending officers must state a justification or explanation, as well as the steps they took in order to preserve the integrity and evidentiary value of the confiscated items.
If there is no justification or explanation expressly declared in the sworn statements, the investigating fiscal must not immediately file the case before the court.
Instead, the fiscal must refer the case for further preliminary investigation in order to determine the existence of probable cause.
If the fiscal filed the case despite the absence of such, the high court said the judge may exercise his discretion to either refuse to issue a warrant of arrest or dismiss the case outright for lack of probable cause, in accordance with Section 5, Rule 112 of the Rules of Court.
The justices noted that one of the apprehending officers from the PDEA had testified that no members of the media and barangay officials arrived at the crime scene and that no inventory was made in the PDEA office.
No DOJ representative
The justices also said that the prosecution failed to explain why they did not secure the presence of a DOJ representative.
The law said the physical inventory and photograph of the seized items 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 in case of warrantless seizures.
The Supreme Court ordered that copies of its decision be furnished to the DOJ secretary, the head of the DOJ National Prosecution Service, Office of the Solicitor General, Public Attorney’s Office, Philippine National Police, PDEA, National Bureau of Investigation, and Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
The court also directed the Office of the Court Administrator to disseminate copies of the decision to all trial courts, including the CA.
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