Association for Property and Evidence, Inc.
Log - Vol 94, No 4
Chain of Custody:
Keeping Track of Property
by Robin Lynn Trench
In the state of New York a police chief
was convicted of stealing $ 200,000 in department funds and narcotics from
the property room. Two years of narcotics arrests were dismissed due to
tampering of evidence.
In Nevada, police discovered over $500,000
missing from the property room. The audit began after the sergeant in charge
committed suicide for no apparent reason.
In Kansas, three police captains were fired
or demoted for involvement in removing items ready for disposal from the
property room for personal use.
In California, the FBI was called in when
police started to arrest a suspect for dealing drugs packaged in evidence
envelopes from another local agency. One officer was placed in the witness
protection program when the investigation suggested half the agency had
been involved in evidence theft and/or corruption.
Every state has a horror story.
Every agency has experienced a problem at one time or another. Court decisions
reflect the concern to protect the integrity of evidence. Policies and
procedures that specify the need for a complete chain of custody grew from
A strong chain of custody works hand
in hand with good audit procedures maintaining the integrity of the
property room. It is needed when evidence is challenged in court cases,
when audits are done or when questions about contamination of evidence
comes up. Most important is that a good chain of custody provides the ability
to locate evidence rapidly improving the efficiency of any property room.
What is a "chain of custody"?
Black's Law Dictionary defines Chain of
Custody as follows:
In evidence, the one who offers
real evidence, such as the narcotics in a trial of a drug case, must account
for the custody of the evidence from the moment in which it reaches his
custody until the moment in which it is offered in evidence, and such evidence
goes to weight not admissibility of evidence. Com. v. White, 353 Mass.
409, 232 N.E.2nd 355. For example, "chain of custody" is proven if an officer
is able to testify that he or she took control of the item of physical
evidence, identified it, placed it in a locked or protected area, and retrieved
the item being offered on the day of the trial. McEntyre v. State, Tex.App.-Hous.
(14 Dist.), 717 S.W.2nd 140 147.
What should a chain of custody do?
With a proper chain of custody (COC), you should be able to track a piece
of property from the minute it comes in, to the minute it leaves the property
system. The COC should let you know everything that has happened with the
The chain of custody should show:
How can each item be tracked for court
when evidence came in
who checked it in
where it was located
when it was moved
where it was stored and by whom
when it was signed out to the:
district attorneys office
when it came back
how it was finally disposed of:
returned to owner
returned to finder
released to other gov't agency
converted to gov't use
Each item is given a unique number. Many
agencies use the case number plus the item number to create the unique
number. 0ne example would be
C94-01120101. Broken down the number
If 80 pieces of Sony TV's were recovered,
each would have a unique number to track. The eightieth Sony TV would be
for the year
January-month when case occurred
twelve day case occurred
first reported crime of the day
property item number for the case
Having a unique item number makes it simple
to locate specific items for disposal or testing. It also provides the
ability to keep detailed records on the movement of each piece of property.
Why is it important to track each movement
or person who has handled the evidence?
The ability to prosecute any case is based
on the validity of the evidence usable in court. Evidence is determined
to be valid if, to the satisfaction of the court, it can be proven the
evidence is in the same condition and has not been changed or altered since
it was seized. The easiest way to accomplish this is to have each person
who handled the evidence testify as to the condition the evidence was in
when they took possession. They can testify that it has not been altered
or left without supervision in an area that would have permitted someone
to alter it. Maintain a written list indicating to whom and when the evidence
has been entered in or out of the evidence section for testing or court
appearances provides the necessary list for court testimony.
Maintaining the chain of custody requires
a signature each time someone takes possession of the property. A signature
proves that the item was taken by someone or returned to someone. Every
time the property changes hands the person taking possession must sign
the chain of custody. For the arresting officer, knowing who has handled
the evidence makes court testimony easier. For the property officer, maintaining
signatures proves that the item is in the property room or has been released
and to whom.
Signatures should include:
Chain of custody can be maintained on one
of several different forms, provided it meets court criteria. On
the property report, a separate sign out sheet or on the evidence.
signature of person taking custody
printed name of person taking custody
badge number or agency id number
date and time
person from whom property was received
Agencies who maintain the chain of custody
as part of the property report pull the report each time evidence is requested.
The evidence is then signed out and signed back in upon return.
Agencies who maintain the chain of custody
on the evidence must mandate the officer request the evidence for court
in advance. The officer then signs the request which is held in the property
room until the item is returned. The evidence itself carries a chain of
custody for signatures that must be signed by the officer asking for the
evidence. (Examples on
pages 8 & 9.) Once the
item is returned, the signed court request is discarded (the actual chain
is on the evidence) and the item is signed in by the property officer.
The advantage of this procedure is that the chain of custody remains with
the evidence and is disposed of when the evidence is disposed of. This
process is normally used when bar coding or a computer tracking program
can generate a printed chain of custody if the evidence is lost.
Is there anything that could "violate"
the chain of custody? The chain of custody is based on tracking the
moves of a sealed piece of evidence.
is important that, if the evidence is of a nature that it can be damaged
or altered, the arresting officer place the item into the proper evidence
package and seal it with tamper resistant evidence tape. The tape should
bear the officers signature across the tape. If the tape is not tamper
resistant, the officer should sign across the tape beginning on the envelope
and ending on the other side of the tape (again on the envelope).
Never permit items to be stapled closed
as a way of sealing evidence.
Staples are easily removed and replaced
creating a rather shaky chain of custody
ANDstaples have sharp edges
that can cause nicks and cuts to personnel creating a potential bio-hazard
Departmental policy should expressly prohibit
the use of staples to seal evidence.
Breaking a seal on evidence should only
be done in accordance with departmental and court policy. The
normal packaging process should never permit anyone in the evidence unit
to open evidence unless the evidence packaging creates a health risk to
property personnel. If it is necessary to open an item, it should be done
by a supervisor in the presence of a witness. An unbroken seal indicates
the item is in the same condition as when it was submitted for storage.
If anything within is missing, it indicates that the error was part of
the original packaging process. An unbroken seal is the best source of
protection property personnel have against internal theft charges.
Valid reasons for breaking an evidence
item (potential imminent risk or danger to property and department personnel).
part of an approved full audit. Complete in accordance with department
policy and procedures. Witnesses should be present when seal is broken.
Once the contents have been verified the item should be resealed, resigned,
and dated indicating why it was opened (for the audit).
that are submitted in packaging that does not meet department minimum standards
not be opened. Place inside
the approved envelope, seal intact. The new outer container should indicate
the original item(s) remains in the original packaging inside of the new
evidence envelope. The new envelope should indicate minimum size package
needed for proper storage. For successful court prosecution avoid writing
"wrong size package" as a reason.
Examples of Chain of Custody
on Property Evidence
Envelope or Bag.
Examples of Chain of Custody
on back of Property Evidence
Tag and on Property Sign-out Sheet
About the Author of
Chain of Custody
Robin Lynn Trench
Robin Lynn Trench is a nationally recognized
expert in the field of Property and Evidence. Her 12 years as a Police
Property Officer lead to her work as an Criminal Justice Academy Property
and Evidence Instructor.
Ms. Trench has been widely published in
law enforcement magazines, and author of the book "Understanding and Managing
Law Enforcement held Property and Evidence." She is the current international
president of I.A.P.E.
© 1994 International Association for
Property and Evidence, Inc.
Reprinted from the Evidence
Log, Vol 94, No 4, Page 5