Taking over any evidence room can truly be a pain. Especially if the room has been neglected. It may have all the inventory needed for current cases, but it may also have inventory and paperwork you haven’t needed in years. And the problem becomes that of triage. That we must make quick work of evaluating those items that we have, and what their status is.
Full Room Inventory
In taking over the evidence room, our first task should be to conduct a full inventory of what is in storage, and to categorize items by storage age, and case status. You’ll likely find that by boiling down the results to these two categories, you’ll find a healthy amount of evidence that can be processed for destruction or removal from the evidence room.
However, there will be results where some extra digging will be involved, we’ll get to those scenarios later. In deciphering the status of these items, you should be able to start re-organizing your shelving with items from cases that are active, and start putting together bins of older items that are not active at all. From those inactive items, the digging begins.
Court Records & Dispositions
We sincerely hope that your State has an online court record website that allows you to search by case number, so you can figure out the status of those items that appear to be inactive. While the information online won’t contain enough content to decide, they serve as a guide to who to pose the question to. It’s true that in a perfect world, you would just ask your investigators these questions, and the matter would be resolved. But if you’re using a triage system, you need precise answers quickly, and that is why having a conversation with your prosecutor’s paralegal staff will likely be in order in this scenario. You’ll need to provide the case numbers that are in the court record, because the courts don’t use our case numbers necessarily. If the record online shows the case is resolved, then there should be a judgement filing signed by the judge, which if all parties are working efficiently, has language within that order saying that the evidence in the case has an assigned disposition from the judge. Most likely, and what we’re looking for, is language that says the items can be destroyed. But there will be instances where the disposition is that the items can be returned to the respective parties. And that means the criminals sometimes too.
With destruction, it’s a matter of attaching the judgement with the disposition paperwork, setting a date for destruction. In the case of returning property, this may be a situation where your agency must set up a new form letter, and send them out to the last known addresses of the parties involved. Make sure to put a deadline on retrieval of the items. By doing this, and setting an agency policy that reflects that deadline, you remove the possibility of claims of loss, particularly tort claims. Evidence rooms can be a magnet for such claims, and getting your process in order can be tricky when dealing with an evidence room where triage is necessary. But addressing these finer points will contribute to an organized work space, where efficiency is the focus. Getting items out of the evidence on the dates implied is a major part of that process, even if it only represents two percent of the overall activity in your room. If items aren’t getting processed out in a timely fashion, guess what’s going to happen? The vicious cycle you’re addressing right now. And who wants that problem attached to their name? Setting up a separate retention schedule for returnable items is necessary, and the time frames vary. We’ve heard up to 90 days from some agencies, but most sit somewhere between 14 and 30 days. And these short date ranges are common enough, and likely very defensible, that your agency should be weary of setting a similar date range. When policy and your communications say the same thing consistently, and it’s enforced at that same level, you have nothing to fear.
No Decisions & Follow Ups
It would be very nice if our work on older items stopped at searching court records. But that will never happen. Some cases will be incomplete in the record you view online. And when you ask the paralegals about them, they won’t have much information. Your best bet is to consult with your investigators and to see what they know about the case, and they should be a fantastic source on such cases. Perhaps there’s a pending deal in the works, maybe there’s a lack of confidence in the case and a plea deal is being sought, maybe the case isn’t going to be pursued after all. Likely, if the case is incomplete in court, then we won’t be able to achieve disposition. That’s to be expected, but the point of doing this work is start having these items updated. We want to have a full picture of where everything is and what items are going to require follow-up in the future. This helps us develop a schedule for retention of items, and set up a plan for how to handle certain items, and further, helps develop inventory and reporting to our administration so that they are aware, up to the day, of what is happening in the evidence room and what is being doing to address issues.
Evidence rooms are beasts that require intensive care upfront, to get them in order and ready for use. There are several things that need to be addressed to get them up to standard. Once you’ve run a triage blitz through your inventory, and updated all items and corresponding paperwork, you now have a “clean” surface to work from, and the experience should help produce some effective policy that addresses issues that will be smaller considerations over the long run, but help to contribute to the goals of transparency, integrity, and efficiency.
Be safe out there!