SC acquits another drug suspect: Presumption of regularity in operations not enough

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) has acquitted another drug suspect for failure of authorities to follow the chain of custody.

In its latest decision, the High Court stressed that the presumption of regularity in police drug operations will not be enough to sustain a conviction.

The SC 3rd Division acquitted Lahmodin Ameril who has been in jail since 2006 and whose conviction by the Manila Regional Trial Court was even upheld by the Court of Appeals.

The SC acquitted Ameril and ordered him released from jail because the High Court found that the authorities who conducted the buy-bust operation were not able to prove the integrity of the drugs, or in legal terms, the corpus delicti (body of the crime) in the case.

The sachets of shabu which were supposedly seized from the suspects had different markings: LAA, LAA-2, and LAA during the buy-bust, but became LLA-1, LLA-2, and LLA when they were presented in trial.

“Contrary to the Regional Trial Court's findings, the integrity of the seized illegal drugs was not preserved. Again, it must be emphasized that the seized illegal drugs constitute the corpus delicti of the illegal sale of dangerous drugs. Its identity must be proved beyond reasonable doubt," the Court said.

"When there is doubt on its identity, conviction cannot be sustained,” added the 3rd Division decision penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, with concurrences from Associate Justices Benjamin Caguioa, Andres Reyes Jr, Alexander Gesmundo, and Rosmari Carandang.

Leonen also stressed in his decision that presumption of regularity will not stand.

Presumption of regularity is the theory always invoked by the police force whenever it figures in controversial operations, particularly when a drug suspect ends up dead.

“This Court has stressed that the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty, which the Court of Appeals relied on in its Decision, stands only when no reason exists in the records by which to doubt the regularity of the performance of official duty,” said Leonen.

Leonen added, “And even in that instance the presumption of regularity will not be stronger than the presumption of innocence in favor of the accused.”

This is the latest in a series of SC acquittal of drug suspects for failure of authorities to follow chain of custody. It warned both policemen and prosecutors that weak drug cases will end up being dismissed.

The trend of acquittal started after People v Liman en banc decision in September 4, 2018, that reiterated strict rules on inventory in drug cases. Penned by Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, the decision warned prosecutors and cops to follow rules by the book, otherwise they risk case dismissal.

People v Lim has since been a hot topic in the judiciary, particularly how it affects the government’s campaign against illegal drugs.

Peralta earlier said “we are failing in drugs cases” due to the sheer volume of cases being filed, overwhelming both prosecutors and courts.

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.