Guevarra to courts: Don't dismiss 'weak' drug cases outright

MANILA, Philippines –  Flaunting the so-called success of President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign against drugs, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra called on the courts to be more "liberal" with drug cases that did not follow proper procedures in handling evidence.

From 2016 to 2017, close to 60% of drug cases were either dismissed or resulted in acquittals of suspects because of weak case buildups, or cases where arresting officers did not comply with the law's requirement that inventory of the seized drugs should be made in the presence of a barangay official and a representative from either the media or the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Guevarra said courts should be more understanding of the practical limitations of the arresting officers, or the prosecutors.

"The sense of liberality that I speak of refers to the manner in which the courts should apply this provision, more particularly in case of non-compliance with the technical requirements but the integrity of the seized items has nevertheless been sufficiently preserved," Guevarra said on Thursday, October 3, after delivering a speech at the National Summit on the Dangerous Drugs Law, where Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin was the keynote speaker.

In his speech, Guevarra said: "We cannot ignore the fact that our work in putting behind bars those who violate our laws against dangerous drugs remains hampered by the very stringent requirements on the handling of evidence, and the chain of custody rule."

Backed by Supreme Court

Guevarra called on the courts: "We want the court not to dismiss if there’s ample evidence that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized illegal drugs have not been compromised, notwithstanding failure to comply with all the technical requirements."

This call to the courts is somewhat supported by the Supreme Court (SC) itself.

Initially, in September 2018, the SC had issued the People vs Lim decision where strict compliance with the rules on handling of evidence was made "mandatory policy."

Written by chief justice applicant Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, the ruling said it would "weed out early on from the courts' already congested docket any orchestrated or poorly built up drug-related cases."

The result was an "overwhelming" increase in acquittals, said the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), which sent a letter to the SC requesting for an additional detailed guideline to the Lim decision.

The en banc refused to issue an additional guideline, but it released a resolution in November 2018 that gave a slight nudge to the court to not acquit drug suspects in weak cases, but only to dismiss the cases without prejudice to the refiling of a new one where officers can be given the chance to justify their non-compliance.

The SC also nudged PDEA that it has remedies it could avail of in case of non-compliance.

"It would do well for PDEA to bear in mind that if there is any difficulty in complying...the law enforcement officers must state in the sworn statements/affidavits the justifiable grounds for non-compliance with the requirements, as well as the steps taken to preserve the identity and evidentiary value of the seized/confiscated items, in order to avoid dismissal of drug cases for lack of probable cause," said the SC.

Bersamin himself reiterated this during the summit, saying that, "Hindi kami nagpapahirap ng arresting officer. Tinutulungan namin sila para magkaro'n sila ng guidance."

(We're not making things difficult for the arresting officer. We're helping them with guidance.)

Consultative council?

Guevarra said it may be time to revive the Judicial Executive Legislative Advisory and Consultative Council, which has been "dormant for years."

"It may be a good idea to revive it. The drug summit held today may in fact trigger the council's reactivation," said Guevarra.

These efforts come amid the influx of drug cases that have since overtaken Philippine courts, but have suffered low disposition rates.

"Until this presidency, it seems that we had largely underestimated the threat posed by dangerous drugs and those who peddled it," said Guevarra.

"Unfortunately, our laws against dangerous drugs and the manner in which we have implemented them in the past 3 years seem to gloss over this nagging reality," he added. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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