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Proper Handling of Evidence

In the age of precision, law enforcement is put under a powerful microscope to assure department protocol was properly carried out. From OJ Simpson to countless other trials where the handling of evidence played a role in an acquittal, it is imperative officers follow strict procedures.

There must be a series of checks and balances in place to ensure proper chain of custody.

 

Ideally, this is a streamlined process where the intake and transfer of evidence is documented so well, there is little room for error. This starts at the scene.

The rushing must stop when the investigation begins.

Once the scene is deemed safe, the rushing stops. All focus is on cause and effect, and nothing is out of the question. While starting from the outside in, officers should concentrate on taking as many pictures as possible. If a body is lying in a field, every angle leading to the victim is documented.

 

In a house, all rooms are photographed before documenting the point of entry or victim. This is so simple but could have a major influence on the outcome as evidence may show up in photos not seen with the human eye at the scene.

When getting closer to the focal point, and before seizing evidence, all focus is on the victim.

 

Before this occurs, who is assuring proper procedures are being met? In rural areas, a buddy system works great. They are the investigator’s eyes when focus is on the evidence. Two officers testifying the same gives the defense little wiggle room.

All scenes are different, so an officer must ask how she can best paint a detailed description of the scene for the jury and others. Diagraming the scene is very important for reconstruction purposes. Officers want to put the jury at the scene when explaining it on the stand. By giving them a detailed diagram with measurements not to scale, they can put the scene in better perspective.

What can go wrong, may indeed go wrong.

Unfortunately, everyone is a detective in today’s “CSI” rage. Potential jurors are not only educated on the different types of potential evidence, they are aware of the terminology too. As for the actual handling of evidence, it is vital that cross-contamination does not occur. Not only should each piece of evidence be properly documented, but handled as its own entity. They make gloves every day, so use them.

Keep in mind, what you think is a small case could catch national attention. Don

t be that officer left to explain why contaminated fingerprint or DNA evidence came from the scene.

Great documentation is needed when anything whatsoever is taken from the scene.

Precise documentation is critical when seizing evidence at the scene. From location to bagging, to transport vehicle, everything is photographed, or videotaped with an accurate time stamp. At this point, it is also good practice for the second officer to play devil

s advocate. After each piece of evidence is located and seized, constantly asking if every “I” was dotted and every “T” was crossed is important.

There are many officers out there sitting on the stand kicking themselves for something they could have done better. It

s a much safer avenue taking all the time needed to document seized evidence. The officer

s time on the stand should be spent explaining the evidence, not how the process was improperly handled. The less doubt for the jury, the better.

Due diligence pays off when the evidence is where it should be.

Once the evidence is transported back to the department, it should be under the same magnifying glass as it was at the scene. The officer must precisely follow the department

s evidence intake policy and procedures. It is also good protocol to have logs showing officers are periodically trained in the department

s evidence collection process. Ignorance is no excuse when handling key pieces of evidence.

There are a number of records management systems out there to streamline this process. Anything to make sure the chain of custody is not broken reaps benefits in the end and if a digital system prevents errors, then cost should not be an issue.

There are many departments still relying on the trusted paper method. If this is a fine-tuned procedure, then great, but a fail-safe system (if there is such a thing) could be a great addition to this process.

From here, the property control officer should have specific procedures in place for proper documentation and placement purposes. Mistakes at this level are just as important as the actual seizing process. Lost evidence is not an option.

Can you imagine what could happen if defense attorneys found out the property control officer left the evidence room door opened? This small mistake could be detrimental to every case and the department

s reputation. This is a small example why a buddy system can help to eliminate small but potentially critical mistakes.

Documenting digital evidence is no different.

In the digital world, it is required to show the evidence was not altered in any way, i.e., Photoshopped. The “originated” and “last modified” labels attached to the photo are important, but there are many other tools to prove the integrity of a photo. In a case where digital evidence, i.e., photos, computers, etc. play a major role, the prosecutor should seek testimony from an expert.

 

When taking hundreds of photos at the scene, the officer is bound to experience flash or lighting issues. Should the unreadable photos be deleted? Absolutely not. If the defense notices missing or out-of-sequence photos, it’s likely red flags are raised. No investigation is perfect, but any opportunity to quash doubt is ideal.

 

Because of the possibilities for error, evidence collection and chain of custody are two of the highest criticized procedures in law enforcement. This is only a fragment of ways to seize and document evidence, but if officers are properly trained in department protocol, use a buddy system, and constantly question every piece of seized evidence, the room for error is minimal.

 

J L Sumpter, M.S. is a retired detective sergeant and a current deputy with the Charlevoix County Sheriff’s Office. J L is a full-time freelance writer and public speaker. He can be reached at jsump@me.com.




Published in Law and Order, Jun 2015

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