IFyou are lucky, your department uses an electronic evidence management system that simplifies evidence and property handling tasks for patrol, detectives, the administration and evidence custodians. Sophisticated electronic systems have emerged with intuitive user interfaces and organized databases under the hood. These systems automate the job of evidence intake and create standardized labels to aide in the identification and organization of both property and evidence. Advanced evidence management systems also make use of barcodes to further streamline the movement of evidence during its life in police custody. Every action is tracked and comprehensive reporting capabilities exist to ensure the chain of custody is unbroken.
If you are not so lucky, you are still tracking IN and OUT on a paper form that has been photocopied so many times it is barely legible. A half step better, you may be using a homegrown solution based on a spreadsheet. If this sounds like your agency’s current evidence management system, you owe it to yourself to look at the alternatives. Evidence is not being managed adequately if the act of removing a piece of paper from a book removes all traces that an evidence item ever existed. We are also falling short of our own industry standards if it is possible to edit the weight or quantity of a controlled substance at a later date with no record of that edit having occurred.
The most basic tenet of evidence management is necessarily ensuring evidence integrity. Establishing a bulletproof chain of custody is therefore critical. The problem can manifest itself easily and innocently enough. Imagine a case where drug evidence enters department evidence from a recent possession arrest. The drugs are packaged along with related paraphernalia and the ever present black marker is used to mark up the packaging, identifying case and item-specific information. The investigating officer requests laboratory chemical analysis and away the package goes to the crime lab for processing. The only problem is the transporting officer failed to correctly decipher all of the scribbling on the package, consequently marking only the paraphernalia out for laboratory transport. The investigating officer receives back exactly what he or she expects, a lab report for both the drugs and the paraphernalia. Trial term arrives and it’s time to show the court exactly the chain of custody that links that defendant with this lab report, except the records do not show it. The department’s official chain of custody never shows the drugs, which were clearly seized from the defendant, ever leaving the police department evidence room for laboratory testing. While you are explaining the most plausible explanation for this occurrence, the defense attorney has a few theories of his own for presentation which are far less beneficial to the state’s case.
The forward looking process of capturing case and item data, followed by clear and concise labeling, and finally a flawless chain of custody, is the only solution to this problem. Managing police evidence has to be about more than just barcodes and chain of custody though. In fact, it’s only one prong of a three prong ideal scenario.
The second prong involves managing real estate. We have limited space and a limited budget depriving us of the most ideal shelving and storage hardware. Just as important as a solid forward process of evidence intake is keeping an eye on the rearview mirror to ensure evidence is disposed of as soon as possible. This is known as retention management and it is what you need to demand from your evidence management system.
Ideally officers will update evidence throughout its lifecycle in police custody. Moreover, collecting as much data as possible up front is key to ensuring the appropriate and timely disposition of property and evidence. Requiring users to specify an item’s final disposition as return to owner, as opposed to destruction, can avoid costly and embarrassing mistakes. Otherwise an officer might tell the evidence custodian everything can be destroyed in a burglary case since the defendant recently pleaded guilty. The victim’s antique jewelry box could end up in flames if that item’s final disposition is not clearly established in the evidence management system.
A modern evidence management system should alert users and custodians to the age of evidence. Items which have remained idle beyond an established time period should proactively alert the case officer and evidence custodian so that it is not permitted to linger indefinitely. One staple of police evidence rooms is the keg of beer. Interestingly, kegs, which never seem to disappear and even become part of the furniture, are most often related to underage drinking offenses. These offenses are among those with the shortest statute of limitations.