|Plain Language summary: |
Case title: “People of the Philippines vs. Nicolas Gutierrez” G.R. No. 179213, September 3, 2009
Ruling: The prosecution failed to prove under the “chain of custody” rule that the shabu allegedly seized from the accused by the police officers was the same shabu presented in court. The accused must therefore be acquitted.
(1) “Corpus delicti”: substance of the crime that proves a crime has actually been committed. In cases involving illegal drugs, the illegal drug itself is the corpus delicti. Its existence is vital for the court to find the accused beyond reasonable doubt.
(2) “Chain of custody” rule: there must be testimony about every link in the chain, from the moment the object seized was picked up to the time it is offered in evidence.
Every person who touched the object must describe
“Mallillin v. People” G.R. No. 172953, April 30, 2008 (Supreme Court requirements in proving chain of custody)
Section 1 (b) of the Dangerous Drugs Board Regulation No. 1, Series of 2002 which implements R.A. No. 9165 (definition of "chain of custody")
 A police team arrested Nicolas Gutierrez during a buy-bust operation on June 16, 2003 in Pasig City. The team allegedly seized from Gutierrez five centigrams of methylamphetamine hydrochloride (“shabu”) and drug paraphernalia.
Gutierrez was charged under R.A. 9165 with illegal sale of shabu and illegal possession of paraphernalia.
 Gutierrez pleaded “not guilty” during his arraignment. He claimed that he was merely having dinner with his family when four unidentified armed men barged into his house and arrested him.
 During the pre-trial, Gutierrez’s lawyer stipulated that:
a. the specimen (alleged shabu) exists,
b. the arresting officers requested for its examination,
c. a forensic chemist examined the specimen, and
d. it tested positive for methyl amphetamine hydrochloride.
 During the hearing, the fiscal presented some of the police officers who arrested Gutierrez. The officers identified the buy-bust money paid to Gutierrez and the shabu bought from him. PO1 Espares testified on the marking and eventual turnover of the seized sachet of alleged shabu to the investigator.
 The Pasig City Regional Trial Court found Gutierrez guilty of the illegal sale of shabu. But the RTC acquitted him of the charge of illegal possession of paraphernalia.
Gutierrez questioned the RTC’s ruling before the Court of Appeals. The CA affirmed the RTC’s decision. Gutierrez then brought his case up to the Supreme Court.
The prosecution failed to show what happened to the shabu from the time the arresting officers gave it to the investigator up to its turnover for laboratory examination. The case records also do not show what happened to the shabu between its turnover by the chemist to the investigator and its presentation in court. Since the prosecution failed to prove that the shabu allegedly seized from Gutierrez was the same shabu presented in court, should Gutierrez be acquitted?
Supreme Court ruling:
Gutierrez should be acquitted because the prosecution failed to show an unbroken chain of custody of the alleged shabu.
Under Section 5, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, the elements necessary in a prosecution for the illegal sale of shabu are:
- the identity of the buyer and the seller;
- the object and the consideration; and
- the delivery of the thing sold and the payment for it.
In “Malillin v. People,” the Supreme Court explained how it expects the chain of custody or “movement” of the seized evidence to be maintained. There must be testimony about every link in the chain, from the moment the object seized was picked up to the time it is offered in evidence. Every person who touched the object must describe
- how and from whom it was received, where it was, and what happened to it
while in the witness’s possession,
- the condition in which it was received, and
- the condition in which it was delivered to the next link in the chain.
1. no change in the condition of the object andPO1 Espares, one of the arresting officers, testified on the marking and eventual turnover of the allegedly seized sachet of shabu to the investigator. But no explanation was given on its custody in the interim – from the time it was turned over to the investigator to its turnover for laboratory examination. The case records also do not show what happened to the allegedly seized shabu between the turnover by the chemist to the investigator and its presentation in court.
2. no opportunity for someone not in the chain to possess the object.
Highlights of the Supreme Court’s decision / clarifications:
 The Supreme Court also ruled that Gutierrez should be acquitted because the arresting officers failed to comply with the rule on the custody and disposition of confiscated drugs (Section 21, Paragraph 1 of Article II of R.A. No. 9165). The officers did not physically inventory and take pictures of the shabu allegedly confiscated from Gutierrez. The officers also did not explain why they did not follow the rule.
 “Because of the built-in danger of abuse that a buy-bust operation carries, it is governed by specific procedures on the seizure and custody of drugs.”
“By the very nature of anti-narcotics operations, 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 the pockets or hands of unsuspecting provincial hicks, and the secrecy that inevitably shrouds all drug deals, the possibility of abuse is great.”
“Courts must be extra vigilant in trying drug cases lest an innocent person is made to suffer the unusually severe penalties for drug offenses.”
 What about the stipulations made by Gutierrez’s lawyer during the pre-trial?
These stipulations have no bearing on the question of chain of custody. The Court said:
These stipulations, which merely affirm the existence of the specimen, and the request for laboratory examination and the results thereof, were entered into during pre-trial only in order to dispense with the testimony of the forensic chemist and abbreviate the proceedings. That such is the intention of the parties is clear from the additional stipulations that the forensic chemist had no personal knowledge as to the source of the alleged specimen; and that the defense was reserving its right to object to the pieces of evidence marked by the prosecution. Clearly, the stipulations do not cover the manner the specimen was handled before it came to the possession of the forensic chemist and after it left her possession.
To interpret the stipulations as an admission that appellant was the source of the specimen would be to bind him to an unceremonious withdrawal of his plea of not guilty – a reading not supported by the records which creates a dangerous precedent.