Supreme Court acquits more drug suspects

Lian Buan

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Supreme Court acquits more drug suspects

LeAnne Jazul

Justices sternly remind prosecutors that they must prove 'with certitude' that the illegal drugs seized in buy-bust operations are 'exactly the same substance offered' as evidence in court

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) has acquitted another batch of drug suspects as it makes good on its promise that weak case buildups, especially those violating rules on drug inventory, will lead to dismissals and acquittals.

In 3 separate decisions from December 2018 to January 2019, the SC’s 2nd and 3rd Divisions acquitted a total of 6 drug suspects and ordered them immediately released from jail.

The trend of acquittal follows People v Liman en banc decision in September 4, 2018, that reiterated strict rules on inventory in drug cases. Penned by Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, the decision warned prosecutors and cops to follow rules by the book, otherwise they risk case dismissal. 

People v Lim has since been a hot topic in the judiciary, particularly how it affects the government’s war on drugs. 

Recent acquittals

On December 5, the SC 2nd Division acquitted 3 drug suspects – Nina Malana who was sentenced to life impisonment in 2015 for selling 0.02 grams of shabu, and Brandon dela Cruz and James Francis Bautista who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2013 over 0.029 grams of shabu.

Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa penned the Malana acquittal, and Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe for the Dela Cruz and Bautista acquittals. Both had concurrences from other 2nd Division members – Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Associate Justices Andres Reyes Jr and Rosmari Carandang.

On January 7 this year, the SC 3rd Division acquitted Emmanuel Oliva, Bernardo Barangot, and Mark Angelo Manalastas  who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015 over 0.03 to 0.10 grams of shabu worth around P500. 

Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta penned the Oliva, Brangot, and Manalastas acquittals, with the unanimous concurrence of Associate Justices Marvic Leonen, Ramon Paul Hernando, and Carandang. 

Witnesses not present

Prior to these acquittals, the SC had acquitted two others for the same reason – policemen did not have all the proper witnesses in the drug inventory as required under Section 21 of Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

By imposing strict rules, the justices want prosecutors and law enforcement officers to prove “with certitude” that the drugs seized in buy-bust operations are “exactly the same substance offered” as evidence in court.

The law requires the accused or a representativean elected public official; or a representative from the National Prosecution Service (NPS) or the media to be present when the cops conduct the inventory of the drugs seized.

In the case of the Oliva acquittal, the cops were able to get a barangay official as witness, but none from the NPS or the media.

Peralta wrote in the decision, “A stricter adherence to Section 21 is required where the quantity of illegal drugs seized is minuscule since it is highly susceptible to planting, tampering or alteration.”

In the Dela Cruz and Bautista acquittals, the cops had a barangay official and an NPS representative present, but none from the media.

“As earlier discussed, prevailing jurisprudence requires the prosecution to account for the absence of any of the required witnesses by presenting a justifiable reason therefor or, at the very least, by showing that genuine and sufficient efforts were exerted by the apprehending officers to secure their presence. Clearly, these standards were not observed in this case,” Bernabe wrote in that decision.

In the Malana acquittal, none of the 3 required witnesses was present, leading Caguioa to say, “In this case, the presumption of regularity cannot stand because of the buy-bust team’s blatant disregard of the established procedures under Section 21 of RA 9165.”

Peralta earlier said “we are failing in drugs cases” due to the sheer volume of cases being filed, overwhelming both prosecutors and courts.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.