What is Chain of Custody? And How Businesses can use it?

What is Chain of Custody? And How Businesses can use it?

What is chain of custody documentation?

“Chain of custody documentation” is defined as the the historical sequential paper trail that records the “when, why, how, and by whom” in relation to physical or electronic evidence that is collected, handled, or analyzed. Under federal law, any item with a break in its chain of custody or that has been improperly documented cannot be admitted or shown to juries. In the context of the courtroom, the chain of custody is essential to the outcome of a case. There is a set of chain of custody  documentation that is initiated whenever evidence is collected, and this documentation follows said evidence through the various stops and testing along the way. This documentation will note the following:

  • Who found the evidence.
  • Where said evidence was found.
  • Every person who handled the evidence.
  • When the evidence was found.
  • What was ultimately done with the evidence.

For any evidence that is legally admitted to a court case, the custody chain associated with this evidence must be clean, concise, and well-documented. While this framework outlines the ways in which chain of custody documentation is handled in regards to evidence in the legal realm, chain of custody documentation has many other uses across a variety of industries in both the public and private sectors.

Chain of custody documentation in the business world

Many people would be surprised to learn that chain of custody documentation is a priority for many businesses. To illustrate this point further, chain of custody documentation is extremely vital to governments, small businesses, associations, agencies including law enforcement, logistics service providers, and shipment providers. The chain of custody process is in many ways similar to a consumer’s experience when purchasing a product or service online. For example, after a product is purchased, the product is then assigned a tracking number, and this number effectively functions as a digital passport. At each stop along the way, the package gets stamped, and consumers can then track their shipment’s progress in real-time. As such, a chain of custody document is a verifiable receipt that controls inventory during all parts of the transactional process, from purchase, through the point of sale, to delivery.

Furthermore, many businesses make use of a chain of custody documentation system to tackle supply management. For instance, in the dairy industry, chain of custody documentation can be used in relation to the traceability of food products, making it much easier to recall food should there be a need to protect the public from a potential health issue, such as a possible salmonella contamination. Chain of custody documentation is also used in regards to wood products that are produced worldwide for buildings, furniture, or other construction based uses by assuring that the trees used are collected for such means are from sustainably managed sources. In the art world, chain of custody documentation is referred to as provenance. Provenance is used to keep a record, timeline, and chronology of a historical artwork, who owned it, when it was sold and to whom, and where the artwork was located during its ownership. This type of documentation can also be used to aid in the prevention of various forms of fraud or theft.

To provide a last example of the application of chain of custody documentation within the business world, the International Standards Organization or ISO endorses the use of chain of custody documentation for taking control over supply chain management functionality. In the estimation of the ISO, chain of custody documentation represents a simple solution to the many issues that can arise during the processes of product development, production, and delivery. The ISO’s standardization of this practice and endorsement is designed “to help boost manufacturer and consumer confidence, reducing supply chain costs by addressing issues like risk, loss of time and conditions of production.”

What chain of custody can do for your business?

Chain of custody documentation can provide a variety of benefits for both business entities and organizations. Some of these benefits include:

  • Create access for both public and private entities to document products or services.
  • Take better control over their inventory; products can be traced both physically and electronically.
  • Provide a better understanding concerning the supply line for ingredients, components, and final products.
  • Assist in documenting the chronology of distribution lines will give a record for any disruption or loss.
  • Help develop solutions for any area that creates loss or negatively influences the product’s delivery, quality, or value.

Chain of custody documentation in relation law enforcement

According to a study done in September 2020, a chain of custody is “the most critical process of evidence documentation.” Police want to keep the public safe, and there is far more work to arresting criminals than simply slapping on a pair of handcuffs. When officers and investigators enter a particular crime scene, they gather evidence, complete all labels on the containers containing said evidence, and then begin the chain of custody form to initiate constant tracking. Each box and label containing evidence is designated with its own unique identification code. All other relevant details are also included, such as the location in which the evidence was collected, the date and time it was collected, the name of the person who found the evidence, along with a witness signature. Packages are then sealed in such a way that they remain untouched using tamper-evident tape.

According to another popular chain of custody study, the information sheet included with a chain of custody report which most often consists of the following:

  • A Unique identifier.
  • The name and signature of the sample collector.
  • An official address and contact number.
  • The name of the recipient.
  • The evidence laboratory’s address.
  • Details of each sample, including a unique identifier and matrix, the date and time of collection, and the type of analysis required.
  • Signatures of everyone involved in the chain of possession with the appropriate date and time.
  • The date and method of delivery.
  • Authorization for the analysis of the sample.
  • Any other pertinent information regarding the sample.

Each sample or piece of evidence must be assigned its own sheet of documentation. One a surface level, the details required for this documentation may initially seem to be more straightforward than they really are. Collection is in many ways the easiest part of the process, as the documentation will then need to demonstrate every transmission, from the moment the evidence was collected and sealed to when the evidence reached the courtroom for further examination. Each time evidence is handed off to another expert for analysis or study, it must be proven that no parties outside of the chain of custody had any access to this evidence without proper authorization. Courts do not limit the number of transfers in relation to evidence, as forensic evidence must often be tested and analyzed scientifically. However, it is still critical to keep the number as low of transfers as possible to avoid any potential issues.

How critical can chain of custody be to businesses outside of law enforcement?

When we think of a chain of custody in terms of legality as it applies to forensic evidence and serious court cases, the concept is very much critical – as the evidence that is provided by the means of the chain of custody documentation process can mean life or death for those who have been accused of crimes in court. However, when we think of the multitude of businesses than enable us to enjoy our food supply, the chain of custody documentation associated with such businesses can also be as severe as life the difference between life and death.

As companies cam use a quality control chain of custody system to aid in the development, creation, and distribution of products, lives can effectively be saved as well. Were it not for chain of custody documentation in regards to the food industry, lives could be lost to simple illnesses such food poisoning, as expired foods would remain on store shelves without proper notice. In this way, chain of custody documentation is of the utmost importance to virtually every business throughout the country, as such documentation allows for businesses to not only track and identify potential issues during the course of their operations, but provide remedies for these issues as well.

Irrespective of a specific business’s field or industry, chain of custody documentation can be vital to a businesses continued operation and in turn success. Chain of custody documentation allows for businesses to operate in the most effective and efficient manner as possible, as the documentation can give employees and professionals alike the information they need to complete their job functions at the highest level. Without proper chain of custody documentation, many businesses would be adversely effected, if not outright fail overnight. As such, it is important that consumers are aware of the ways in which chain of custody documentation impacts every corner of the business world as opposed to simply the legal system.