Best kept secrets about evidence storage

Best kept secrets about evidence storage
Best kept secrets about evidence storage

How well is evidence tracked and controlled? I’ll let you in on some of law enforcement’s best kept secrets about evidence storage. In our experience, we have found some compelling evidence issues for defense attorneys. It’s irresponsible for any agency to have these kinds of secrets about evidence storage facilities under some of the conditions we have found. If attorneys were aware of the situation of many evidence rooms they would see some very striking issues with evidence storage.

“Advances in forensic science have made physical evidence increasingly crucial in criminal justice – but the practice of preserving and maintaining that evidence is often underfunded, poorly managed, or just plain sloppy”.
By Jordan SmithFri., Feb. 15, 2013, Austin Chronicle

As an attorney, you understand physical evidence. You know that evidence is valuable as long as it is relevant, untainted, in its original form (or as close as possible), and properly controlled. For the purpose of this article let’s consider only physical evidence related to your case that has been collected by an investigative or law enforcement agency. Physical evidence is presented in virtually every type of case conducted by investigators, but what if the evidence is not as ‘pure’ as it should be?

What if the integrity of evidence being brought into court is not really representative of the way the evidence was supposed to have been controlled?  Would you know? Have you ever physically visited an evidence room or looked through evidence in any condition outside the courtroom or classroom? For the most part, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Attorneys and courts generally accept that law enforcement agencies are maintaining evidence the way it should or is meant to be.

In my experience, physical evidence is rarely maintained the way it’s supposed to be, particularly when facilities are in short supply and staff are underpaid or undertrained, which is often the case. I submit that this should receive a lot more attention from defense attorneys than it does. I’ll be happy to share our findings and how we were able to legally and legitimately access this information. It’s one of law enforcement’s best kept secrets about evidence storage.

Frankly, considering the dismal condition of some evidence storage facilities I’ve examined, some police agencies run the very real risk of having all of their cases thrown out due to the lack of controls and lack of safeguards of their evidence. If prosecutors knew the conditions in which evidence was kept, they would not be willing to take as many cases to court as they do.

Some agencies strictly control evidence, and they should serve as models for other agencies. It seems to me that many law enforcement agencies pay lip service to evidence control but in real practice, they just don’t do it. A dedicated Evidence Control Unit is outside budget allowances, so most departments opt for the next best thing – assigning someone to be responsible for a boring, unrewarding and unacknowledged task. Guess how well that works.

Take for instance an evidence room that I, as the chief investigator for UCMJ Investigations was hired to inventory. My findings were presented in court and in summary amounted to: “A total and abysmal failure of controls.” I testified to those findings and to my opinion that if I had the authority I would have fired anyone (including the Chief) that had any responsibility for evidence control.

In this particular case, there were 1490 items in the evidence room and less than 10 of them were properly controlled. Rarely did we find any properly verifiable chain of custody, and without a proper Chain/Transfer of Custody, no one can verify the condition of the evidence and what happened to it over a period of time. Some types of evidence were stored without being fully weighed, and there was no verification that the weights remained the same after several custodial changes.

“Chain-of-custody” is often recognized as the weak link in criminal investigations. It refers to the chronological and careful documentation of evidence to establish its connection to an alleged crime. From the beginning to the end of the forensic process, it is crucial to be able to demonstrate every single step undertaken to ensure “traceability” and “continuity” of the evidence from the crime scene to the courtroom.” (ref Laboratory and Scientific Section, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Crime Scene and Physical Evidence awareness for non-forensic personnel, May 2009).

In another recent case, we were tasked with examining every piece of evidence in a local department’s evidence storage facilities looking for missing evidence in a murder case. I can’t begin to tell you how many pieces of evidence were present, but I can say that we examined an estimated 750 square feet of evidence spread across five storage facilities.

My purpose was not to audit conditions of the evidence (we were looking for very specific missing items of evidence), but I can tell you that with few exceptions, that evidence was not properly controlled. It’s easy to see how inadequate conditions evolved. Officers collected evidence in the field and place it in temporary lockers. The next duty day evidence custodians collected that evidence and placed it in the appropriate storage room. Much of the evidence was simply tossed into bins without any labeling or sequential organization; other evidence was piled up in corners of the room. Chain-of-custody forms generally went unsigned, and when custodians changed there was never a full inventory or accounting of all of the evidence. This meant that for several years evidence was being stored and represented in court as ‘being controlled,’ when it really wasn’t properly controlled at all. We found evidence from a single case stored in different locations, apparently based on the type of evidence. One homicide case had photographs stored in one bin, weapon and clothing stored in another bin, and drugs involved in the case were stored elsewhere, all without rhyme or reason. Aside from the corporate knowledge of the evidence custodian, there was no evidence tracking system to indicate where the different pieces of evidence were located. If the custodian was not available there would be no way for anyone to know where all the evidence was stored. This is unacceptable and could have a very serious impact on your case and your client’s future.

How well is your evidence tracked and controlled? Are you willing to stake your case and your client’s future on it? Insufficient or ineffective training and protocol drastically increase the probability that evidence will be changed, altered, misplaced, lost or somehow out of proper control. Why should your client risk conviction because law enforcement doesn’t control the evidence?

UCMJ Investigations can help you. We can evaluate, examine or audit evidence control procedures on your behalf. Our experience-based consulting services can guide you through the reality of evidence storage and control. We’ve studied evidence control, practiced evidence control, taught evidence control and evaluated evidence control. We’ve been an evidence custodian and testified on evidence control. We can help you identify the real issues that can impact your case and your client’s future.

Call UCMJ Investigations at 501-515-2868 to learn if the evidence for your case has had the proper verifiable chain of custody.

** If you have a case and are not sure if an investigator can help or contribute to your case, contact us for a free review. **

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