For failure of the prosecution to present a key witness, the Court of Appeals has reversed the conviction of a Virac resident caught in possession of illegal drugs in his home nearly five years ago.
In a decision rendered Mar. 16, 2022, the CA’s 16th Division granted the appeal of Johnny “Tom Jones” Sambajon de Leon and set aside the January 2019 judgment of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 43.
The lower court had found the accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Section 11 of Republic Act 9165 and sentenced him to imprisonment of 12 to 14 years and to pay a fine of P300,000.
Information filed before the Court stated that on July 6, 2017, then RTC Branch 43 Presiding Judge Lelu P. Contreras issued a search warrant to the Virac police station covering de Leon and his house at Palnab del Norte.
The operation commenced at 2:30 AM on July 8, with the police team securing the surroundings of the house, with the search began an hour later in the presence of barangay officials and a media witness.
While no contraband was found in the body of de Leon, the designated searcher discovered found a bubble gum canister in the family’s sleeping area, with three pieces of rolled aluminum foil and five heat-sealed plastic sachets of white crystalline granules inside the canister.
Examination at the Regional Crime Laboratory Office later yielded a positive result for the presence of methamphetamine hydrochloride, with the evidence turned over to the custodian before it was retrieved for presentation to the Court three months later.
In his defense, de Leon claimed that two policemen in civilian clothes knocked on his door that early morning to announce the search, with one of them going inside the house and inspecting the sleeping area.
He likewise alleged that while he was reading the search warrant, another policeman went inside the house and called someone on his cellphone, telling him that everything had been done smoothly and that the other people can proceed to the area.
Minutes later, de Leon, said, police officers led by a “Deputy Buraga” came to the house and proceeded with the search.
When the canister was found, de Leon allegedly told the officers not to touch it and have it subjected to fingerprint analysis but his request was ignored.
Given the manner by which the search was done, first by the two policemen in civilian clothing, and then by the team, he expressed belief that the entire operation was a sham designed to implicate him for involvement in the illegal drug trade.
In finding him guilty beyond reasonable doubt, RTC Judge Contreras said the conflicting testimonies of the accused, his wife and daughter failed to support his defense that the police planted the contraband in his house.
The Court noted if de Leon had doubts about the origins of the seized drugs, he should have voiced out his complaint to the two barangay kagawads instead of signing the Certificate of Orderly Search.
Upon being sentenced, the accused immediately appealed his case but had to post an increased bail bond of P400,000 for his temporary liberty.
In the appeal handled by Mendoza & Mendoza Law Offices, de Leon urged the appeals court to declare the evidence confiscated in his house as tainted and be excluded.
The Court of Appeals sustained the prosecution’s view that the search warrant was implemented in the presence of the accused and that it was conducted by the police team with regularity
However, it said the accused should be acquitted as the prosecution failed to establish the police operatives’ compliance with the chain of custody rule.
Under RA 9165, the police should be able to establish said chain of custody from seizure and marking and subsequent turnovers until it reaches the court.
In de Leon’s case, it stated, the fourth link – the turnover and submission of the marked illegal drug seized from the forensic chemist to the court – suffered from serious infirmity.
Despite confirming in open court that custodian SPO1 Maribel Bagato received the evidence after the laboratory examination, she was not presented in court in clear disregard of the mandate that every link in the chain must testify, the CA pointed out.
“Clearly, the identity and integrity of the corpus delicti had been compromised,” the CA 16th Division composed of Associate Justices Alfredo Ampuan, Pedro Corales and Jennifer Joy Ong said in acquitting de Leon.