SC slams reckless drug buy-busts, wants weak cases junked

MANILA, Philippines – To prevent planting of evidence in drug cases, the Supreme Court recently issued a tall order requiring law enforcement officials to strictly follow proper procedure or else they risk getting their cases thrown out.

In acquitting a drug suspect from Cagayan de Oro City for the arresting team's failure to follow the chain of custody of the shabu, the Supreme Court stressed the mandatory rules to be followed.

"While the above-quoted provision has been the rule, it appears that it has not been practiced in most cases elevated before us. Thus, in order to weed out early on from the courts' already congested docket any orchestrated or poorly built up drug-related cases, the following should henceforth be enforced as a mandatory policy," the Supreme Court said.

Weak case, recklessness

The new pronouncements are contained in the recently promulgated decision by the en banc acquitting drug suspect Romy Miranda Lim, whose conviction for possession of illegal drugs was affirmed in 2017 by the Court of Appeals.

The decision of the en banc was penned by Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, with the unanimous concurrence of 12 other justices.  Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza inhibited due to prior action as solicitor general, while Associate Justice Mariano Del Castillo was on wellness leave.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency agents conducted a buy-bust on Lim in 2010, but skirted some mandatory steps in the inventory of the shabu. Agents failed to call in a member of the media, a member of the Department of Justice (DOJ), and an elected public official in the inventory, as required under Republic Act No. 9165 or the Dangerous Drugs Law.

"In other words, in a criminal case, the prosecution must offer sufficient evidence from which the trier of fact could reasonably believe that an item still is what the government claims it to be," Peralta wrote in the majority decision.

The en banc majority acquitted Lim on reasonable doubt, as no independent party witnessed the inventory of the shabu allegedly found on the suspect.

In his separate concurring opinion, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said that playing it fast and loose with procedure "makes conducive the planting of evidence."

Leonen said that “rather than rely on the courts' licentious tolerance and bank on favorable accommodations, our police officers should be exemplary.”

Calling the buy-bust a "profligacy" or recklessness, Leonen said that "certainly, it is not too much to ask that our law enforcement officers observe what the law mandates."

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating on two petitions asking to declare the war on drugs unconstitutional for alleged irregularities, as well as supposed extrajudicial killings. 

The government has submitted drug war documents and data to the Supreme Court for assessment. On initial appreciation, the Supreme Court said the high number of deaths in the drug war leads the Court to believe they may be state-sponsored. 

War on drugs

During his interview with the Judicial and Bar Council for the chief justice vacancy, Peralta said "we are failing in drug cases," primarily due to the sheer volume of drug cases.

Data from the DOJ and the Supreme Court showed that drug cases have taken over Philippine courts, starting from a low 7,675 in 2009 to 70,706 in 2017.

Prosecution success rate, however, remained one of the lowest, at around 50%.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has acknowledged that the dismissal of cases is largely due to the "failure to observe procedures requirements, particularly on the chain of custody of the drugs seized." 

On Tuesday, Guevarra said he hopes that the Supreme Court pronouncements "would require extra effort on the part of law enforcers and prosecutors" and "in the long run could result in less dismissals due to technicalities." – 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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