Evidence And Property Rooms - The Fort Knox Of Law Enforcement

Source: Evidence Log

Phyllis Dixon, Business Consultant

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More and more, there has been a trend in lawenforcement to utilize third-party suppliers for long-term storage solutions of DNA, homicide and sexualassault/rape kit storage. In this article, we will examinetraditional solutions to long-term storage of evidenceand property versus some of the more innovativeand far more economical alternatives available to lawenforcement agencies, courthouses and crime labs thatare being achieved through the utilization of third-party suppliers able to provide secure chain-of-custodyfor long-term storage solutions.

The need for the right solutions to long-term storageof DNA-based evidence and homicide evidence is critical. Why? Because unless all criminal activity in this worldcomes to an end (which we know won’t be happeninganytime in the foreseeable future), then traditional long-term storage solutions need to be able to keep pace withthe evidence storage requirements, without the risk ofcompromised, lost or misplaced evidence.

Because of the ongoing need to make space withina limited area, long-term storage will always be areoccurring and an expensive line item when managedand kept within a limited environment. For example,a physical building will always have space constraints– because buildings have walls. Further, constructioncosts to build new facilities and/or renovate existingfacilities will always include: development, planning,budgetary approvals, permits, schedules, inspections,etc. Also, with most public institutions, they mustbe careful on how they manage and spend taxpayerdollars, which subsequently requires a lot of reviews,approvals, budgetary adjustments, etc.

There’s Gold in Dem There Evidence & Property Rooms

Similar to Ft. Knox, law enforcement’s Evidence& Property rooms closely guard valuables. While Ft.Knox guards the nation’s gold reserve, law enforcementproperty & evidence rooms are tasked with storingvaluable property and evidence that ultimatelyrepresents either freedom, justice and/or incarceration;and, in many cases, directly impacts the generation ofnew legislation and/or changing existing laws.

Those tasked to manage and run property & evidencerooms are many times the unsung heroes of lawenforcement. They are the infamous custodians of evidenceand property. Their ability to ensure chain-of-custody,proper storage and documentation of evidence is criticalto cases being solved, especially with the many advancesin processing DNA-related evidence and the strides in thefield of forensic testing. Lost or compromised evidencecan be like kryptonite for a law enforcement agency. It can literally thwart the community’s trust, end the careers ofpeace officers; and worst of all, allow the guilty to go free.

Trying to manage the daily influx of evidence,coupled with the long-term storage retention of DNAand homicide evidence, sexual assault/rape kits,oversized and odd-shaped evidence, weapons, drugs,vehicles, etc. can be daunting. But it is not as dauntingwith a customizable solution that greatly minimizesthe expense and cost of some of the more traditionallong-term storage solutions.

The best and most innovative long-term storagesolutions for law enforcement is a convenient, affordable,customizable option to law enforcement agencies andcrime labs offered by third-party suppliers. The benefitsare numerous and the solutions they offer are catching on.For instance, 1) third-party suppliers save law enforcementagencies money - it’s an affordable alternative solutionand far less costly than any of the other options out there(i.e. new construction, renovation of existing facilities,expensive racking and shelving); 2) third-party suppliersalso provide long-term, secure, and strict chain-of-custody; 3) third-party suppliers can offer customizablestorage, logistics, freight and packaging solutions.

When There is a Breach in Chain-of-Custody

After visiting my first of Evidence & Propertyroom firsthand, I left amazed at the level of spacemanagement and planning that must be incorporatedin order to effectively and efficiently store the evidenceand property. I mused in my mind during the tour thatthese must be the “storage gods and goddesses” of lawenforcement! Just how do they do it, and keep up? Idiscovered that there is an answer for this, and thatanswer is they don’t have an answer for the most part.

The reality facing law enforcement agencies is thatall property and evidence does not come in uniformsizes and dimensions, thereby making calculations forconfiguring space requirements difficult. Along withhigh-profile cases also comes greater scrutiny from thepublic, media and other law enforcement agencies. Thehigher the profile of the victim, crime or perpetrator,the greater the expectation of justice. Because of this,many property room personnel feel like the “oldwoman who lived in a shoe, who had so many childrenshe did not know what to do.” They are tasked withthe daily challenge of space allocation, knowing thelaws require long-term storage of DNA, homicide andsexual assault / rape kit evidence.

Evidence retention laws vary from state to state.

For example:

  • In California, Penal Code section 1417.9 mandatesgovernment agencies generally retain evidence from acriminal case as long as the convicted inmate is imprisoned
  • In Illinois Criminal Code 725 ILCS 5/116-4, “...(b) After a judgment of conviction is entered, theevidence shall either be impounded with the Clerk ofthe Circuit Court or shall be securely retained by a lawenforcement agency. Retention shall be permanent incases where a sentence of death is imposed. Retentionshall be until the completion of the sentence, includingthe period of mandatory supervised release for theoffense, or January 1, 2006, whichever is later, for anyconviction for an offense...”

Legislative compliance continues to be a contributingfactor for law enforcement agencies to keep up withchanges in statutes of limitation and other areas ofcriminal law impacting long-term storage requirements,which has resulted in third-party suppliers rallying tothe support of law enforcement to provide solutions fortheir long-term evidence storage needs.

The National Center for Victims of Crime prepareda report, Evidence Retention Laws, A State-by-StateComparison. At the time of the report, the report findingsindicated that 16 states did not even have evidence retentionlaws on their books at the time. Additionally, we are seeingexamples of this as evidenced by the two bills AB 3118 andSB 1449, passed in the California Senate, and now headedto the Governor’s desk for signing. California AB 3118and SB 1449 will require law enforcement agencies to 1)conduct audits of all untested rape kits in their possessionand report to the Department of Justice; and for untestedrape kits to be processed within a prescribed time, withsubsequent documentation and preparation for uploadinginto the national CODIS database.

As humorous or sad as it may be (depending onwhich side of the aisle one stands), even a formerpresident of the United States learned on a very personallevel how damaging DNA evidence can be, even inthose illicit “consensual” scenarios, especially whenthere is a spouse (and/or lover) not in agreement withthe “scenario.” DNA evidence continues to play a majorrole in bringing the guilty to justice and, as equallyimportant, exonerating those falsely accused. One canonly imagine the “the significantly reduced fiscal impact”on law enforcement and our judicial system, had DNAevidence been introduced at the beginning of a criminaltrial. This could potentially result in more accurateverdicts, resulting in the reduction of lawsuits and thecost of incarceration for those wrongfully imprisoned, aswell as the cost and expense to the families impacted bythose said wrongful convictions. In the end, we all payfor it one way or the other.

The good news is that third-party storage providesan important service to law enforcement agencies as itrelates to long-term secure chain-of-custody storage ofDNA, homicide, sexual assault / rape kits. An InnocenceProject review of their closed cases from 2004 throughJune 2015 revealed that 29% of cases were closedbecause of lost or destroyed evidence. Further, that 29%potentially symbolizes the increased possibility thatjustice will not be served on behalf of the victim(s), thatthe actual perpetrator of the crime is likely still free andpresents a threat to society, and someone may be sittingbehind bars, wrongfully accused of a crime they did notcommit on the taxpayers’ dime.

The Innocence Project has championed the cause ofthose falsely imprisoned through the utilization of DNAevidence, especially in instances where DNA testing wasn’tavailable and/or used, but the evidence was preserved.Founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld atCardozo School of Law, the Innocence Project exoneratesthe wrongly convicted through DNA testing and advocacyto reform the criminal justice system and to prevent futurewrongful convictions and incarceration. In the early daysof their work, there were no laws that supported the rightto access post-conviction DNA testing.

Alternatives to Traditional Property & Evidence Room

Even though each exoneration and/or prosecutionrepresents its share of complexities and challenges,ensuring the evidence has remained in secure, strictchain-of-custody is paramount, and is one of the mainreasons we’re seeing the developing trend of utilizingthird-party storage.

There are numerous manuals developed for propertyroom personnel to use as a guide, such as theCaliforniaLaw Enforcement Evidence & Property ManagementGuide. Manuals like these are full of excellentinformation on all important topics related to evidencestorage, from chain-of-custody, how organize a propertyroom, policies for handling evidence, documentationprotocols, facility design, audits/inventories, etc., andare written by experts in this field. Unfortunately, theseguides do not address, nor solve, the problem of howto successfully manage the long-term storage needs ofDNA, homicide, rape kits, oversized and/or odd-sizedevidence and property once you run out of space.

Some have considered options such as cargocontainers as a possible solution to address the need foradditional space. However, cargo containers are NOTa good answer, and are notorious for increased risk ofevidence contamination, as illustrated in the following:

Although the initial cost of cargo containers may“appear” to be an inexpensive alternative, they are in factone of the worst alternatives for DNA evidence. Whilethe cargo container’s initial purchase price is relativelyinexpensive, include the costs to individually climatize(HVAC), alarm and monitor each cargo container.Finally, those cargo containers need to be stored someplace as well...which still does not solve the long-termstorage constraints of evidence and property rooms.Cargo containers are good for evidence that does nothave DNA, and is not subject to temperature fluctuationbecause they are generally stored outdoors.

The traditional alternatives for long-term storage willalso hit a wall: that is the wall with the big words paintedon it, “SORRY, YOU’RE OUT OF SPACE (again).” Solet’s solve this problem and stop staring down that loadedbarrel of traditional expensive fixes, mends and repairsthat may include the expense of installing more shelves,cabinets, or racking. At some point you will still run outof space, and in hindsight realize you’ve spent a smallfortune that only ended up being a Band-Aid fix.

Solutions & Answers

The federal government has been using third-partystorage services for decades. There has been a growingtrend with state and local law enforcement to utilizeprivate-sector companies to provide them with long-term storage solutions. Law enforcement agenciesexploring this option should consider the followingwhen looking for a long-term storage service provider:

  1. Reputation & Experience- Ask for references.The supplier should have a proven track record andreputation working with law enforcement clients.
  2. Chain-of-Custody- Knowledge and experienceof proper protocols; integrate recommended IAPEproperty & evidence room policies and procedures.
  3. Third-Party Employee Background Checks- Allstaff should have undergone a background check and beable to pass security clearances on an as-needed basis.
  4. Specialized & Custom Storage, Packaging,Logistics & Freight- Ensure the supplier is able toprovide you with customizable solutions; and ask forexamples of this that they’ve done for other clients.
  5. Strong Client & Employee Retention Rate- Thiswill tell you a lot about the character of the business,the owner(s) and the level of consistency to expectfrom employees in the area of customer service.
  6. Security & Strict Controlled Access for Long-Term Third-Party Storage- Strict controlledaccess to ensure evidence is not misplaced, stolen orcompromised.
  7. High Profile Cases- Although this should not bethe final determining factor, it should be part of theevaluation and selection process, especially if youanticipate your agency being involved in or handling ahigh profile case. Determine if the supplier has experiencehandling evidence from high profile cases in the area ofconfidentiality, managing media inquiries, etc.
  8. Supplier Responsiveness/Accessibility- Ensurethat the supplier is able to respond to requests for pick-up and/or release of evidence in a timely manner, andsometimes with little notice.

Our law enforcement agencies deserve to have at accessto the best tools, methods and technologies out there infulfilling their oaths as public servants to protect and servethe communities they work in. The old cliché that “crimedoesn’t pay” isn’t quite true. Crime does pay – it costs a lot.This includes not only the high price paid by the victimsof crime, but the high costs associated with prosecutinga case. Those costs include the long-term storage costsassociated with the one of the most vital parts of thecase – the evidence, especially DNA, homicide or sexualassault/rape kits. However, not only do the right third-partysuppliers provide the needed solutions and secure, strictchain-of-custody, but they operate as an extension of lawenforcement and crime labs’ evidence and property rooms,and offer the best economy-of-scale solution.

Phyllis Dixon is a business consultant and freelance writer.One of her clients, SafeStore USA, works directly with lawenforcement, providing long-term storage of DNA evidence

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