Chain of custody rule

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

Our Dangerous Drugs Act under Republic Act 9165, as amended by RA 10640, provides for the so-called chain of custody rule, a rule which is meant to maintain the integrity of evidence in drug cases and make the case foolproof against adulteration or planting of evidence.

Chain of custody is defined as the duly recorded authorized movements and custody of seized drugs at each stage, from the time of seizure/confiscation to receipts in the forensic laboratory, to safekeeping and to presentation in court for destruction.

Each link in the chain must be properly established by the prosecution. The first link is the seizure and marking. Second is the turnover of the illegal drugs seized by the apprehending officer to the investigating officer. Third, the turnover by the investigating officer to the forensic chemist for laboratory examination. And fourth, the turnover and submission of the marked illegal drugs seized by the forensic chemist to the court.

In so far as the first link is concerned, the following procedure must be followed: The apprehending team having initial custody and control of dangerous drugs that  are confiscated, seized or surrendered shall immediately, after such seizure and confiscation, conduct a physical inventory of the seized items and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the person from whom such items were obtained or his representative or counsel, with an elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service or the media, who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.

The physical inventory and photograph shall be conducted at the place where the search warrant is served or at the nearest police station or the nearest officer of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable in case of warrantless seizures.

Section 21 of the same law, however, provides that non-compliance of the requirements under justifiable ground, as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the seized items are properly preserved by the apprehending officer/team, shall not render void and invalid such seizures and custody over said items.

The same “chain of custody” rule requires the issuance immediately upon receipt of the subject item of a certification of the forensic laboratory examination results, by the forensic laboratory examiner. However, if the volume of the drugs does not allow the completion of testing within the time frame, a partial laboratory examination report shall be provisionally issued stating the quantity of dangerous drugs still to be examined by the forensic laboratory. However, a final certification shall be issued immediately upon completion of said examination and certification.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), in guidelines issued, said that the chain of custody of the seized/confiscated items received from the apprehending officer/team and examined in the forensic or crime laboratory shall be observed, where it shall document the chain of custody each time a specimen is handled, transferred or presented in court until its disposal, and every individual in the chain of custody shall be identified.

It also requires that in warrantless seizures, the marking, physical inventory, and photograph of the seized items in the presence of the violator shall be done immediately at the place where the drugs were seized or at the nearest police station or nearest office of the apprehending officer/team, whichever is practicable.

Meanwhile, in a case decided last Feb. 19, 2020, the Supreme Court, in Tumabini vs People, said that Section 21 of RA 9165 applies so long as there has been a seizure and confiscation of drugs, and that there is nothing in the law which states that it is only applicable when there is a warrantless seizure in a buy-bust operation. The SC said it should be applied in every situation when an apprehending team seizes and confiscates drugs from an accused, whether through a buy-bust operation or through a search warrant.

In the same case, the Court explained that Congress enacted Sec. 21 to ensure the identity and integrity of the seized drugs and to prevent tampering thereof. Since in all prosecutions for violation of the RA 9165, the corpus delicti is the dangerous drug itself, its existence is essential to a judgment of conviction. The chain of custody, as a method of authentication, ensures that unnecessary doubts involving the identity of seized drugs are removed, it added.

And as explained by friends in the prosecution service, this chain of custody rule is applied even in cases of searches incident to warrantless arrests.

An alleged violation of this chain of custody rule is now being raised by the lawyer of Julian Ongpin, son of prominent businessman Roberto “Bobby” Ongpin, following the death of Julian’s alleged girlfriend Bree Jonson. In opposing the DOJ’s resolution for the filing of a criminal complaint against Julian for drug possession, Julian’s lawyer claims that during the inventory and markings of the seized drugs, there was only one civilian witness present (the duty officer of the hostel) and that Julian was not there since he was brought to the hospital.

In a motion filed with the La Union RTC, the lawyer cited the decision of the Supreme Court in People vs Lim, where the Court said that in order to weed out early on from the court’s already congested dockets any orchestrated or poorly built-up drug-related cases, it is mandatory that in their sworn statements/affidavits, the apprehending/seizing officers must state their compliance with the requirements of Sec. 21, that in case of non-observance of the provision such officers must state the justification or explanation, as well as steps taken, in order to preserve the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized/confiscated items, that if there is no justification or explanation expressly declared in the sworn statements or affidavits, the investigating fiscal must not immediately file the case in court and instead refer it to preliminary investigation, and that if the investigating fiscal filed the case despite such absence, then the court may exercise its discretion to either refuse to issue a commitment order or warrant of arrest, or dismiss the case outright for lack of probable cause.

Lawyer Dennis Manalo said that the circumstances under which the drugs were seized shows no justification for not complying with the mandatory guidelines implementing the chain of custody rule. In Julian’s case, he noted that the SOCO team, which seized the drugs, conducted the physical inventory and took photographs without the presence of the accused or his representative or counsel, an elected public official, a representative of the National Prosecution Service or a representative from the media. Their justification for doing so, he stressed, is that they were not aware that the substance recovered from the room are, in fact, cocaine, a dangerous drug.

In asking for the dismissal of the drug charges, Manalo pointed out that since the DOJ filed the case despite the absence of such justification, then the court must exercise its discretion to either refuse to issue a commitment order or warrant of arrest, or dismiss the case outright for lack of probable cause.

In People vs del Rosario decided June 22, 2020, the SC said that lapses in the chain of custody and lack of compliance with Section 21 renders acquittal proper since serious uncertainty hangs over the identification of the corpus delicti that the prosecution introduced into evidence. In effect, the prosecution has no evidence given that the circumstances surrounding the handling of the seized items cast doubt on their source, identity, and integrity.



For comments, e-mail at mareyes@[email protected]

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