SC: Buy bust procedures must be strictly followed

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SC: Buy bust procedures must be strictly followed

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The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that procedures in a legitimate buy bust operation must be strictly followed by law enforcers.

In one of the most recent cases on drug buy bust operations, the Supreme court in People versus Cabezudo(G.R. No. 232357.  November 28, 2018) acquitted the accused who was charged of selling prohibited drugs.

Because the rules in conducting a legitimate buy bust were not observed by the authorities, the high court once again stressed:

“While it is true that a buy-bust operation is a legally effective and proven procedure, sanctioned by law, for apprehending drug peddlers and distributors, the law nevertheless requires strict compliance with the procedures laid down by it to ensure that rights are safeguarded.”

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The Court will look into whether the arresting officers involved adhered to the step-by-step procedure outlined in Section 21 of Republic Act 9165.

This is what is called the “chain-of-custody rule”.

In all drugs cases, compliance with the chain-of custody rule is crucial in any prosecution that follows such operation.

Chain of custody means the duly recorded authorized movements and custody of seized drugs or controlled chemicals from the time of seizure/confiscation to receipt in the forensic laboratory, to safekeeping to presentation in court for destruction.

The rule is imperative, as it is essential that the prohibited drug confiscated or recovered from the suspect is the very same substance offered in court as exhibit; and that the identity of said drug is established with the same unwavering exactitude as that requisite is indispensable to make a finding of guilt.

The law lays down the procedure that police operatives must follow to maintain the integrity of the confiscated drugs used as evidence.

The law requires:

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(1) that the seized items be inventoried and photographed immediately after seizure or confiscation;

(2) that the physical inventory and photographing must be done in the presence of (a) the accused or his/her representative or counsel, (b) an elected public official, (c) a representative from the media, and (d) a representative from the Department of Justice (DOJ), all of whom shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.

This must be followed because of the very nature of anti-narcotics operations, where the need for entrapment procedures, the use of shady characters as informants, the ease with which sticks of marijuana or grams of heroin can be planted in pockets of or hands of unsuspecting provincial hicks, and the secrecy that inevitably shrouds all drug deals are prevalent, the possibility of abuse is great.

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Section 21, RA 9165 further requires the apprehending team to conduct a physical inventory of the seized items and the photographing of the same immediately after seizure and confiscation in the presence of the aforementioned required witnesses, —called the insulating witnesses— all of whom shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy.

From my experience in handling drug cases, I recall a case where I presented for the defense the barangay kagawad and the television reporter who signed the drug inventory.

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The prosecution’s story was that the buy bust was conducted at around 8 p.m which was followed by the inventory. The prosecution said the inventory-taking was witnessed by the kagawad, and the media. The prosecution said that at around 10 p.m. they already brought everyone including the accused to the police station.

However I was able to take hold of  the barangay blotter where it independently narrated the timeline as to when the barangay kagawad was fetchedby tanodsfrom his home.

The timeline  in the blotter showed that the barangay kagawad was fetched from his home at 11:30 p.m. were he was already asleep.

When he arrived at the scene, he was merely made to sign the inventory.

The tv reporter who signed the inventory confirmed her report that at 9 p.m. she was covering a fire incident prior to proceeding to the scene of the buy bust.

How could the reporter have witnessed the inventory, much less the raid, when at 9 p.m. she was still covering a fire incident on the way to the scene of the buy bust?

Inconsistencies such like these show gaping holes in the prosecution that leads to an acquittal.

This has been confirmed by this case of People versus Cabezudo where the court ruled:

“In this connection, the phrase also means that the three required witnesses should already be physically present at the time of inventory — a requirement that can easily be complied with by the buy-bust team considering that the buy-bust operation is, by its nature, a planned activity. Verily, a buy-bust team normally has enough time to gather and bring with them the said witnesses.”

The three insulating witnesses required by the law to be present serve a very critical role in drug buy bust operations— to ensure there is no planting of evidence.

They insulated both the prosecution and the accused.

For without these insulating witnesses, who can independently validate whether or not the evidence was merely planted?

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