Criminal Law, Remedial Law

VALDEZ vs. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES G.R. No. 170180 November 23, 2007 Warrantless Arrest, Search and Seizure, Fruit of a poisonous tree

The sacred right against an arrest, search or seizure without valid warrant is not only ancient. It is also zealously safeguarded. The Constitution guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Any evidence obtained in violation of said right shall be inadmissible for any purpose in any proceeding.

Indeed, while the power to search and seize may at times be necessary to the public welfare, still it must be exercised and the law implemented without contravening the constitutional rights of the citizens, for the enforcement of no statute is of sufficient importance to justify indifference to the basic principles of government.

FACTS

Petitioner was charged with violation of Section 11, par. 2(2) of R.A. No. 9165.

Petitioner pleaded not guilty. The prosecution presented three barangay tanods namely, Bautista, Aratas and Ordoo, who arrested petitioner.

Bautista testified that at around 8:00 to 8:30 p.m. of 17 March 2003, he was conducting the routine patrol along the National Highway in the said barangay together with Aratas and Ordoo when they noticed petitioner, lugging a bag, alight from a mini-bus. The tanods observed that petitioner, who appeared suspicious to them, seemed to be looking for something. They thus approached him but the latter purportedly attempted to run away. They chased him, put him under arrest and thereafter brought him to the house of Barangay Captain Mercado, where he, as averred by Bautista, was ordered by Mercado to open his bag. Petitioners bag allegedly contained a pair of denim pants, eighteen pieces of eggplant and dried marijuana leaves wrapped in newspaper and cellophane. It was then that petitioner was taken to the police station for further investigation.

Aratas and Ordoo corroborated Bautistas testimony on most material points. However, Aratas admitted that he himself brought out the contents of petitioners bag before petitioner was taken to the house of Mercado. Nonetheless, he claimed that at Mercados house, it was petitioner himself who brought out the contents of his bag upon orders from Mercado. For his part, Ordoo testified that it was he who was ordered by Mercado to open petitioners bag and that it was then that they saw the purported contents thereof.

The forensic chemist conducted the examination of the marijuana allegedly confiscated from petitioner. He disclosed on cross-examination, however, that he had knowledge neither of how the marijuana was taken from petitioner nor of how the said substance reached the police officers. Moreover, he could not identify whose marking was on the inside of the cellophane wrapping the marijuana leaves.

Petitioner maintained that at Mercados house, his bag was opened by the tanod and Mercado himself. They took out an item wrapped in newspaper, which later turned out to be marijuana leaves. Petitioner denied ownership thereof. He claimed to have been threatened with imprisonment by his arrestors if he did not give the prohibited drugs to someone from the east in order for them to apprehend such person. As petitioner declined, he was brought to the police station and charged with the instant offense.

The RTC rendered judgment against him.

The CA affirmed the challenged decision.

ISSUE:

Whether the warrantless arrest effected against him by the barangay tanod was unlawful and that the warrantless search of his bag that followed was likewise contrary to law.

Whether or not the marijuana leaves purportedly seized from him are inadmissible in evidence for being the fruit of a poisonous tree.

RULING:

To determine the admissibility of the seized drugs in evidence, it is indispensable to ascertain whether or not the search which yielded the alleged contraband was lawful. The search, conducted as it was without a warrant, is justified only if it were incidental to a lawful arrest. Evaluating the evidence on record in its totality, as earlier intimated, the reasonable conclusion is that the arrest of petitioner without a warrant is not lawful as well.

Section 5, Rule 113 of the Rules on Criminal Procedure provides the only occasions on which a person may be arrested without a warrant, to wit:

Section 5. Arrest without warrant; when lawful.A peace officer or a private person may, without a warrant, arrest a person:

(a) When, in his presence, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit an offense;
(b) When an offense has just been committed and he has probable cause to believe based on personal knowledge of facts or circumstances that the person to be arrested has committed it; and
(c) When the person to be arrested is a prisoner who has escaped from a penal establishment or place where he is serving final judgment or temporarily confined while his case is pending, or has escaped while being transferred from one confinement to another.

x x x

It is obvious that based on the testimonies of the arresting barangay tanod, not one of these circumstances was obtaining at the time petitioner was arrested. By their own admission, petitioner was not committing an offense at the time he alighted from the bus, nor did he appear to be then committing an offense. The tanod did not have probable cause either to justify petitioners warrantless arrest.

For the exception in Section 5(a), Rule 113 to operate, this Court has ruled that two (2) elements must be present:

(1) the person to be arrested must execute an overt act indicating that he has just committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit a crime; and (2) such overt act is done in the presence or within the view of the arresting officer.

Here, petitioners act of looking around after getting off the bus was but natural as he was finding his way to his destination. That he purportedly attempted to run away as the tanod approached him is irrelevant and cannot by itself be construed as adequate to charge the tanod with personal knowledge that petitioner had just engaged in, was actually engaging in or was attempting to engage in criminal activity. More importantly, petitioner testified that he did not run away but in fact spoke with the barangay tanod when they approached him.

It is not unreasonable to expect that petitioner, walking the street at night, after being closely observed and then later tailed by three unknown persons, would attempt to flee at their approach. Flight per se is not synonymous with guilt and must not always be attributed to ones consciousness of guilt.

Of persuasion was the Michigan Supreme Court when it ruled in People v. Shabaz that flight alone is not a reliable indicator of guilt without other circumstances because flight alone is inherently ambiguous. Alone, and under the circumstances of this case, petitioners flight lends itself just as easily to an innocent explanation as it does to a nefarious one.

Moreover, as we pointed out in People v. Tudtud, [t]he phrase in his presence therein, connot[es] penal knowledge on the part of the arresting officer. The right of the accused to be secure against any unreasonable searches on and seizure of his own body and any deprivation of his liberty being a most basic and fundamental one, the statute or rule that allows exception to the requirement of a warrant of arrest is strictly construed. Its application cannot be extended beyond the cases specifically provided by law.

Indeed, the supposed acts of petitioner, even assuming that they appeared dubious, cannot be viewed as sufficient to incite suspicion of criminal activity enough to validate his warrantless arrest. If at all, the search most permissible for the tanod to conduct under the prevailing backdrop of the case was a stop-and-frisk to allay any suspicion they have been harboring based on petitioners behavior.

However, a stop-and-frisk situation, following Terry v. Ohio, must precede a warrantless arrest, be limited to the persons outer clothing, and should be grounded upon a genuine reason, in light of the police officers experience and surrounding conditions, to warrant the belief that the person detained has weapons concealed about him.

Accordingly, petitioners waiver of his right to question his arrest notwithstanding, the marijuana leaves allegedly taken during the search cannot be admitted in evidence against him as they were seized during a warrantless search which was not lawful.

As we pronounced in People v. Bacla-an

A waiver of an illegal warrantless arrest does not also mean a waiver of the inadmissibility of evidence seized during an illegal warrantless arrest. The following searches and seizures are deemed permissible by jurisprudence: (1) search of moving vehicles (2) seizure in plain view (3) customs searches (4) waiver or consent searches (5) stop and frisk situations (Terry Search) and (6) search incidental to a lawful arrest.

The last includes a valid warrantless search and seizure pursuant to an equally valid warrantless arrest, for, while as a rule, an arrest is considered legitimate if effected with a valid warrant of arrest, the Rules of Court recognize permissible warrantless arrests, to wit: (1) arrests in flagrante delicto, (2) arrests effected in hot pursuit, and, (3) arrests of escaped prisoners.

When petitioner was arrested without a warrant, he was neither caught in flagrante delicto committing a crime nor was the arrest effected in hot pursuit. Verily, it cannot therefore be reasonably argued that the warrantless search conducted on petitioner was incidental to a lawful arrest.

Doubtless, the constitutional immunity against unreasonable searches and seizures is a personal right which may be waived. The consent must be voluntary in order to validate an otherwise illegal detention and search, i.e., the consent is unequivocal, specific, and intelligently given, uncontaminated by any duress or coercion. Hence, consent to a search is not to be lightly inferred, but must be shown by clear and convincing evidence. The question whether a consent to a search was in fact voluntary is a question of fact to be determined from the totality of all the circumstances.

Relevant to this determination are the following characteristics of the person giving consent and the environment in which consent is given: (1) the age of the defendant; (2) whether he was in a public or secluded location; (3) whether he objected to the search or passively looked on; (4) the education and intelligence of the defendant; (5) the presence of coercive police procedures; (6) the defendant’s belief that no incriminating evidence will be found; (7) the nature of the police questioning; (8) the environment in which the questioning took place; and (9) the possibly vulnerable subjective state of the person consenting. It is the State which has the burden of proving, by clear and positive testimony, that the necessary consent was obtained and that it was freely and voluntarily given.

In the case at bar, following the theory of the prosecution albeit based on conflicting testimonies on when petitioners bag was actually opened, it is apparent that petitioner was already under the coercive control of the public officials who had custody of him when the search of his bag was demanded. Moreover, the prosecution failed to prove any specific statement as to how the consent was asked and how it was given, nor the specific words spoken by petitioner indicating his alleged “consent.” Even granting that petitioner admitted to opening his bag when Ordoo asked to see its contents, his implied acquiescence, if at all, could not have been more than mere passive conformity given under coercive or intimidating circumstances and hence, is considered no consent at all within the contemplation of the constitutional guarantee. As a result, petitioners lack of objection to the search and seizure is not tantamount to a waiver of his constitutional right or a voluntary submission to the warrantless search and seizure.

Notably, the inadmissibility in evidence of the seized marijuana leaves for being the fruit of an unlawful search is not the lone cause that militates against the case of the prosecution. We likewise find that it has failed to convincingly establish the identity of the marijuana leaves purportedly taken from petitioners bag.

In all prosecutions for violation of the Dangerous Drugs Act, the following elements must concur: (1) proof that the transaction took place; and (2) presentation in court of the corpus delicti or the illicit drug as evidence. The existence of dangerous drugs is a condition sine qua non for conviction for the illegal sale of dangerous drugs, it being the very corpus delicti of the crime.

In a line of cases, we have ruled as fatal to the prosecutions case its failure to prove that the specimen submitted for laboratory examination was the same one allegedly seized from the accused. There can be no crime of illegal possession of a prohibited drug when nagging doubts persist on whether the item confiscated was the same specimen examined and established to be the prohibited drug. As we discussed in People v. Orteza, where we deemed the prosecution to have failed in establishing all the elements necessary for conviction of appellant for illegal sale of shabu.

First, there appears nothing in the record showing that police officers complied with the proper procedure in the custody of seized drugs as specified in People v. Lim, i.e., any apprehending team having initial control of said drugs and/or paraphernalia should, immediately after seizure or confiscation, have the same physically inventoried and photographed in the presence of the accused, if there be any, and or his representative, who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof. The failure of the agents to comply with the requirement raises doubt whether what was submitted for laboratory examination and presented in court was actually recovered from appellant. It negates the presumption that official duties have been regularly performed by the police officers.

In People v. Laxa, where the buy-bust team failed to mark the confiscated marijuana immediately after the apprehension of the accused, the Court held that the deviation from the standard procedure in anti-narcotics operations produced doubts as to the origins of the marijuana. Consequently, the Court concluded that the prosecution failed to establish the identity of the corpus delicti.

The Court made a similar ruling in People v. Kimura, where the Narcom operatives failed to place markings on the seized marijuana at the time the accused was arrested and to observe the procedure and take custody of the drug.

More recently, in Zarraga v. People, the Court held that the material inconsistencies with regard to when and where the markings on the shabu were made and the lack of inventory on the seized drugs created reasonable doubt as to the identity of the corpus delicti. The Court thus acquitted the accused due to the prosecutions failure to indubitably show the identity of the shabu.

Furthermore, it defies logic to require a denial of ownership of the seized drugs before the principle of chain of custody comes into play.

The onus of proving culpability in criminal indictment falls upon the State. In conjunction with this, law enforcers and public officers alike have the corollary duty to preserve the chain of custody over the seized drugs. The chain of evidence is constructed by proper exhibit handling, storage, labeling and recording, and must exist from the time the evidence is found until the time it is offered in evidence. Each person who takes possession of the specimen is duty-bound to detail how it was cared for, safeguarded and preserved while in his or her control to prevent alteration or replacement while in custody. This guarantee of the integrity of the evidence to be used against an accused goes to the very heart of his fundamental rights.

The presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty invoked by the prosecution and relied upon by the courts a quo cannot by itself overcome the presumption of innocence nor constitute proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Among the constitutional rights enjoyed by an accused, the most primordial yet often disregarded is the presumption of innocence. This elementary principle accords every accused the right to be presumed innocent until the contrary is proven beyond reasonable doubt. Thus, the burden of proving the guilt of the accused rests upon the prosecution.

Concededly, the evidence of the defense is weak and uncorroborated. Nevertheless, this [c]annot be used to advance the cause of the prosecution as its evidence must stand or fall on its own weight and cannot be allowed to draw strength from the weakness of the defense. Moreover, where the circumstances are shown to yield two or more inferences, one inconsistent with the presumption of innocence and the other compatible with the finding of guilt, the court must acquit the accused for the reason that the evidence does not satisfy the test of moral certainty and is inadequate to support a judgment of conviction.

In this case, the totality of the evidence presented utterly fails to overcome the presumption of innocence which petitioner enjoys. The failure of the prosecution to prove all the elements of the offense beyond reasonable doubt must perforce result in petitioners exoneration from criminal liability.

Arsenio Vergara Valdez is ACQUITTED on reasonable doubt.

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