Two residents of Virac who were convicted in 2019 for illegal drug offenses recently regained their freedom, thanks to the Court of Appeals’ reversing the judgment of the Regional Trial Court.
In a decision rendered last June 15, 2021 but released only last July, the CA’s Twelfth Division chaired by Associate Ramon Cruz overturned the Sept. 23, 2019 verdict of RTC Branch 43 that found Jose Rey “Kano” Torres Candelaria guilty of violating Sections 6, 11 and 12 of Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2003.
In granting Candelaria’s appeal, the CA acquitted him of all charges due to the failure of the prosecution to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
It may be recalled that on June 24, 2016, a search conducted by the police, pursuant to a search warrant issued by RTC Branch 43 Presiding Judge Lelu P. Contreras, found four sachets of shabu inside his room, as well as evidence several non-drug items such as rolled aluminum foil, handcuffs, six cellphones, lighters and scissors, P2,400 cash, 47 pieces of crumpled aluminum foil, six improvised tooters, four improvised flame adjusters, empty sachets, two improvised bamboo sealers, 10 plastic sachets with white residue, foil strips, paper bags containing empty and unused sachets, a black pouch containing P7,920 cash, and a plastic bag with 12 cut portions of plastic sachets with residue.
Also recovered from inside his sister’s bedroom was a canister containing two empty medium-sized sachets
During the trial, prosecution witnesses testified that the bamboo floor of the accused’s bedroom had a wooden handle which, when lifted, opened to reveal a square-shaped opening big enough to allow a person to get inside the room from underneath the floor which was about a meter off the ground.
In his defense, Candelaria denied having possessed the drug items and drug paraphernalia despite the media witness’ categorical statement that during the search, the accused kept on crying and admitted owning the items. The barangay chairman, Jocelyn Avila, also averred that Kano even apologized to her for using the barangay.
The Court, however, was not convinced, noting that his involvement in illegal drug activities was revealed by the text messages recovered from his cellphone and sentenced Kano to life imprisonment and to pay a fine of P500,000.
In the appeal, Candelaria, through counsel, argued that the RTC gravely erred in convicting him due to the invalidity of the search warrant and in failing to give credence to his defense of denial.
The CA’s 12th Division found the appeal meritorious, pointing out that the search warrant was defective due to the failure of the police to attach to the records the written searching questions and answers and for not sufficiently describing with particularity the place to be searched.
“…(T)here is no evidence that the examination of the applicant and his or her witnesses was reduced to writing as required by the Rules,” it stressed.
It added that the warrant did not indicate a house number or specific location within the barangay, with a sketch of the target area not made an integral part of the warrant nor attached to the records.
“Clearly, nothing in SW No. 2016-31 segregated or set apart appellant’s house from other dwellings in barangay Capilihan,” the Court stated.
In the second case that was decided in May 2021, the CA’s 17th Division junked the conviction of Bernard “Kalag” Aldea Zafe for procedural lapses committed by the police during his arrest on Jan. 28, 2014.
Zafe was collared in a buy-bust operation that went down in Salvacion, Virac, with the police confiscating a small sachet of shabu that he sold to a confidential informant of the police in front of a store near Plaza Rizal. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment and told to pay a P500,000.00 fine.
In his appeal, Zafe faulted the RTC for convicting him despite the prosecution’s failure to prove all the elements of the crime, the arresting officers’ non-compliance with Sec. 21 of RA 9165 and failure to establish an unbroken chain of custody of the evidence.
The appeals court agreed with his claim that while the witnesses were all present during the continuation of the inventory and photographing of the seized items at the police station, the DOJ witness was not present at the time of apprehension and seizure.
It also noted that while the inventory and photographing of the evidence at the nearest police station is allowed, the police’s justification that it could not be completed at the place of arrest “because there was a growing crowd of onlookers” is not considered as sufficient justification.
The Court also said that the forensic chemist did not appear in court to testify, thus, there is no way of knowing how the drugs were kept while in her custody until it was transferred to the court.
“Such glaring gap in the chain of custody seriously taints the integrity of the corpus delicti,” the CA emphasized.
Despite his acquittal, Zafe is now back in detention following his arrest in an anti-illegal drug operation last July 21, 2021.
The police had seized 22 sachets of shabu weighing an estimated 70 grams with a street value of P476,000.00 confiscated from Norlina Aiza “Aiz” Chio, 34, mechanic Mark Anthony “Men-Men” Yacat, 29, who is allegedly her boyfriend, and tricycle driver Bernard “Kalag” Zafe, 46, who occupied the house in Palnab del Norte where 18 sachets of shabu were found, aside from the four sachets sold by Chio to a poseur-buyer.