Court junks drug case after CCTV footage show PDEA agents faked drug bust

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 21 2020 12:20 AM | Updated as of Oct 21 2020 04:07 AM

5 PDEA agents facing indirect contempt charges, probe

MANILA — A Dumaguete court has junked drugs cases against 5 suspects after CCTV footage showed agents from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency lied about a supposed drug bust.

Instead, Judge Amelia Lourdes Mendoza of Negros Oriental Regional Trial Court Br. 34 initiated indirect contempt charges against the 5 PDEA agents involved “for misleading the court, for making untruthful statements in their affidavits, and for directly impeding and degrading the administration of justice.”

PDEA agents Nelson Muchuelas, May Ann Carmelo, Jose Anthony Juanites, Cheryl Mae Villaver and Realyn Pinpin are required to attend indirect contempt proceedings on November 13, along with 2 witnesses — a barangay official and a media representative. 

The judge has also ordered that copies of the order junking the case be sent to the Department of Justice and the Dumaguete City Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the criminal liability of the PDEA agents and to PDEA Director General Wilkins Villanueva for probe into their administrative liability.

WHAT HAPPENED

PDEA agents claimed a certain Richard Torres and 4 other companions were arrested in Torres’ house on June 28 this year, supposedly as a result of a drug buybust operation. 

A poseur-buyer and confidential informant claimed 3 of the accused — Gabriel Aranas, Gwendell Ozoa and Katrina Tish Dabao — were holding a pot session while Torres and his alleged supplier Shinette Sarabia sold a small plastic sachet of shabu to the poseur-buyer.

But the accused presented CCTV footage from cameras operated by the city government which showed that Torres, Dabao, Ozoa and Aranas were “picked up” by PDEA agents one after the other near a traveller’s lodge and were “forced to go inside” a blue AUV.

PDEA agents used the same AUV, whose registration was traced to the agency, to pick up Sarabia in front of a restaurant. 

They were all later brought to Torres’ house where they were supposedly arrested. 

CCTV footage showed the whereabouts of the blue AUV — at least 5 locations — complete with timestamp, which convinced the court that “the accused in these cases were arrested in places other than where the supposed buy-bust operation took place and at a much earlier time than that declared by PDEA agents.”

Although the CCTV footage only showed “outlines and figures of people without facial details,” the court said the narrations of the 5 accused and the clothes they wore on that day corrobated the images on the CCTV footage which the court examined several times. 

COURT RULING

“The time stamps on these videos corroborate the allegations of the accused. It would have been nearly impossible for accused to produce CCTV videos randomly depicting an identical blue utility car with dark windows in all five locations, and within a little more than an hour timeframe. Such a tale would be too tall to concoct,” the court said.

“The Court concludes that accused were illegally arrested on June 28, 2020,” it added.

As a consequence of the illegal arrest, the court ruled it has no jurisdiction over the accused and evidence supposedly obtained from them were inadmissible.

“A citizen’s right to be secure against any unreasonable searches and seizures is sacrosanct. Section 2, Article III of the 1987 Constitution requires a judicial warrant based on the existence of probable cause before a search and an arrest may be effected by law enforcement agents,” the court said.

“Without said warrant, a search or seizure becomes unreasonable within the context of the Constitution and any evidence obtained on the occasion of such unreasonable search and seizure shall be inadmissible in evidence for any purpose in any proceeding,” it explained, saying the arrest was not among the situations where a warrantless arrest is allowed.

An arrest without a warrant may only be valid under the Rules of Court if an accused is caught in the act of committing a crime, in hot pursuit cases or where a prisoner escapes from jail.

In deciding to grant the accused’s motion to quash and to suppress evidence as well as order their release, the court took the opportunity to remind the Judiciary that it “stands between the citizen and the State as a bulwark against executive excesses and misuse or abuse of power.”

“This Court shall not shirk from this immense responsibility of protecting not only the individual rights of the accused in these cases, but more importantly, in ensuring that individual liberties are never sacrificed on account of expediency and efficacy of the war on drugs. Mere expediency was never intended as an excuse for constitutional shortcuts, which are abhorrent to the rule of law ideals defining constitutionalism in this country,” it said.

“[N]othing short than constant vigilance on the part of the courts is required to prevent our slippery slope towards contempt for the law and anarchy. The courts must step in and take the cudgels for individual liberties, and in no other situation is this duty more critical and necessary than when the supposed protectors of law and order become the perpetrators themselves,” it concluded.

NOT THE FIRST TIME

This is not the first time a court has acquitted a drug suspect due to CCTV footage refuting the version of authorities. 

In September 2016, a Makati court acquitted Australian Damian John Berg, who was arrested in June that year supposedly for selling ecstasy.

The now-defunct PNP Anti-Illegal Drug Group claimed Berg was arrested in an alley outside a hotel in Makati in a buy-bust operation with a Canadian but CCTV footage showed police in plain clothes and without an arrest warrant barging into his hotel room to arrest him.

A CCTV footage from the barangay also refuted police’s claims that 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos resisted arrest that’s why he was shot. 

Three cops were instead convicted of murder for dragging him in alley where he was killed. 

The Supreme Court has acquitted several drug suspects recently based on the manner of their arrest and the handling of evidence against them.

A petition questioning the conduct of the drug war remains pending before high court.

A United Nations human rights report in June this year showed widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity as a result of a heavy-handed focus on addressing national security threats and illegal drugs.

“Police raids on private households were routinely carried out without warrants, and post-operational spot reports examined by the Office indicated that evidence may have been falsified,” the report said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs has claimed thousands of lives. Official figures place drug-related deaths at more than 5,000 but human rights groups believe it is well beyond 30,000.