Buy-Bust Operations

One of the most common ways in which law enforcement agencies apprehend persons accused of illegal sale of drugs is through buy-bust operations. A buy-bust operation is a form of entrapment, whereby a police agent disguised as a buyer of illegal drugs undertakes a sales transaction with a seller. Suppose, however, that there is an irregularity in the buy-bust operation, and illegal drugs are confiscated from an alleged seller, what are the remedies and defenses of the accused seller?

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To convict a person for the sale of illegal drugs under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Law, the prosecutor must prove the following: (a) the identities of the buyer and seller, object, and consideration; and (b) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment for it. In short, the prosecutor must prove that the sale took place, and that the accused was the seller.

There is one important requirement to convict the accused under this law: the prosecution must establish and present the “corpus delicti” or “body of the crime”, which in this case is the confiscated drugs. Concomitant to this requirement is the duty of the prosecution to establish the integrity and evidentiary value of such seized items. Absent this requirement, there is no sufficiency of evidence to convict the accused beyond reasonable doubt.

The case of People v. Sorin (G.R. No. 212635, March 25, 2015) is instructive. Here, the accused was acquitted because of an irregularity in the buy-bust operations. Specifically, the apprehending officer who seized the sachets from the accused Sorin during the buy-bust operation failed to mark the sachets and, instead, turned them over unmarked to another police officer. The latter officer was the person who marked the sachets of shabu, and who eventually took custody of the confiscated drugs and delivery to the PDEA.

According to the Supreme Court, the fact that the sachets of drugs were not marked for inventory in the presence of the apprehending officer who confiscated the drugs is fatal to the cause of the prosecution. “The Court cannot over-emphasize the significance of marking in illegal drugs cases. The marking of the evidence serves to separate the marked evidence from the corpus of all other similar or related evidence from the time they are seized from the accused until they are disposed of at the end of the criminal proceedings, thus, preventing switching, planting, or contamination of evidence.”

The same case occurred in People v. Sabdula (G.R. No. 184758, April 21, 2014), where the accused was also acquitted because of failure of the apprehending officer to mark the confiscated drugs in the buy-bust operations. The Supreme Court noted that due to the procedural lapse in the first link of the chain of custody, serious uncertainty hangs over the identification of the shabu that the prosecution introduced into evidence.

It is well-settled that in criminal prosecutions involving illegal drugs, the presentation of the drugs which constitute the corpus delicti of the crime calls for the necessity of proving with moral certainty that they are the same seized items. The lack of conclusive identification of the illegal drugs allegedly seized from the accused strongly militates against a finding of guilt, as in this case. As reasonable doubt persists on the identity of the drugs allegedly seized from the accused, the latter's acquittal should come as a matter of course.

Respicio & Co. specializes in criminal law and defense of persons accused of drug-related offenses.