The Supreme Court has affirmed the conviction of 53-year-old Irish national Eanna O’Cochlain who was caught in possession of two sticks of marijuana weighing less than a gram during a final security checkpoint at the Laoag City International Airport, Ilocos Norte in 2013.
In a 36-page decision penned by Justice Diosdado Peralta, the SC’s Third Division sustained the February 9, 2016 decision and the July 21, 2016 resolution of the Court of Appeals, which in turn upheld the November 22, 2013 decision of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 13, Laoag City, finding accused O’Cochlain guilty of violation of Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.
The tribunal ruled that failure to strictly comply with Section 21 (1) of R.A. No. 9165 does not necessarily render an accused person’s arrest illegal or the items seized or confiscated from him inadmissible or render void and invalid such seizure.
The SC said the most important factor was the preservation of the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized item.
In this case, the Court held that there was substantial compliance with the chain of custody rule, noting that the prosecution was able to prove, through documentary and testimonial evidence, that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items were properly preserved in every step of the way.
Citing People v. Del Monte, the Court held that “non-compliance with the requirements of the law is not automatically fatal to the prosecution’s case and the accused may still be held guilty of the offense charged.”
The Court also held that the chain of custody rule is a matter of evidence and a rule of procedure, it being ultimately anchored on the weight and admissibility of evidence which the courts have the exclusive prerogative to decide.
Any missing link, gap, doubt, challenge, break, problem, defect or deficiency in the chain of custody goes to the weight of the evidence, not in its admissibility, it said.
To assess an allegedly faulty chain of custody, the court looks for ample corroborative evidence as to the evidence’s acquisition and subsequent custody.
The court need not rule out every possibility that the evidence underwent alteration; it needs only to find that the reasonable probability is that the evidence has not been altered in any material aspect, it said.
The SC pointed out that, in this case, there was not a reasonable airport search but that O’Cochlain had waived his right against unreasonable searches when he gave his consent to the warrantless search.
A search was made on O’Cochlain when airport authorities detected the smell of marijuana at the departure area.
The high court stressed that an airport search is reasonable when limited in scope to the object of the Anti-Hijacking program, not the war on illegal drugs.
Unlike a routine search where a prohibited drug was found by chance, a search on the person of the passenger or on his personal belongings in a deliberate and conscious effort to discover an illegal drug is not authorized under the exception to the warrant and probable cause requirement.
The Court, however, held that there was a valid consented warrantless search in the case of O’Cochlain who readily agreed when the security screening officer (SSO) requested to conduct a pat-down search on him. It noted that the record is devoid of any evidence that O’Cochlain manifested objection or hesitation on the body search.