Evidence Log - Volume 1994 Number 4

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International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc.
Evidence Log - Vol 94, No 4

Chain of Custody: 
Keeping Track of Property and Evidence
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 yesterday's nightmares.

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 property.

The chain of custody should show:

  • 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: 
    • crime lab
    • district attorneys office
    • court
    • related agency
  • when it came back 
  • how it was finally disposed of:
    • returned to owner
    • returned to finder
    • destroyed 
    • auctioned 
    • released to other gov't agency
    • converted to gov't use 
How can each item be tracked for court ? 

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 would mean: 
for crime
for the year
January-month when case occurred
twelve day case occurred
first reported crime of the day
property item number for the case
If 80 pieces of Sony TV's were recovered, each would have a unique number to track. The eightieth Sony TV would be marked C94-01120180.

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 getting 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: 

  • 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 
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. 

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. It 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 contamination risk.
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 seal are:

Leaking item (potential imminent risk or danger to property and department personnel). 

As 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). 

Items that are submitted in packaging that does not meet department minimum standards should 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.

Copyright © 1994 International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc.
Reprinted from the Evidence Log, Vol 94, No 4, Page 5

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