In this edition, we’ll be discussing proper handling and packaging of narcotics, how this type of training is not only essential for evidence personnel, but that they should be the subject matter experts on the topic, and what additional training they need to store and manage narcotics evidence exceptionally.
The term handling is used to capture all actions involved in collecting evidence, up to storage, and even after that portion, everything after. In this case, let’s focus on the handling of narcotics evidence from the scene, to storage.
When it comes to the scene, documenting narcotics through photographs will be a necessity. Starting from the location, it’s best to photograph from the point that the narcotics were first noticed (which helps tremendously in establishing plain view, or other circumstances falling outside of a warrant action), and then continuing photographing up to the item’s direct location, as close as reasonably possible. At this point, putting on protective gloves, using an appropriately sized evidence envelope or pouch to transfer the evidence from the discovered location, and into custody is the next step. Most envelopes will have prompts on them to be filled out so that they can be referenced to case, a charge, a suspect, a date and time collected, and so on. This envelope needs to be sealable, and then cataloged to the case using an evidence management system. It would also be wise to have envelopes that have a specific color, only used in collecting narcotics. This will assist in assuring that the evidence isn’t stored incorrectly. On a side note, your system should have the ability to enter statuses of evidence. In this case, the officer entering this item should be able to select the temporary storage location as it’s identified by the agency. It’s also prudent to have a log sheet in this location that is specific to narcotics, where the officer notes the date and time the item was stored, what narcotic it is, and what case number it’s assigned to.
Intake & Storage
At this point, the item should be acceptable for evidence personnel to begin the intake process. Once they’ve verified the case number, the item, and that the item is packaged in an acceptable manner, the process of entering the item into the evidence room, and long-term storage begins. Any personnel working with narcotics evidence need to have a controlled environment to do so, and one of the effective ways of doing that is to have a negative pressure system in the area where narcotics will be stored and evaluated, say for example, the weighing of narcotics. This negative pressure system will ensure that your personnel don’t get sick, greatly reducing exposure to things like aspergillus, dust that is contaminated with chemicals, and other such hazards presented by narcotics. If you don’t have a lab, and you send your narcotics evidence to a lab for testing and official weight measurement, it is more than likely that they will want an approximate weight measurement ahead recorded prior to handling the evidence themselves. It may be that you designate your evidence personnel to carry out this function, or you have someone dedicated to narcotics conduct the activity, in the presence of evidence personnel, so that they act as an independent witness. Whatever method you use, make sure to photograph the weight in addition to documenting it in your evidence management system. In weighing narcotics, it’s important to speak with your crime lab and your prosecutor ahead of time to develop a written procedure that everyone in your agency follows. Especially in narcotics prosecutions this is one of those facets where consistency is the key. Measurement devices also must be calibrated regularly, and this may be a time where partnering with your county or State Weights and Measures Department may be in order. If not, it may be that you need to find a private company that specializes in this type of service.
With that out of the way, we begin the formal entry process, where the item is accepted as being stored in our evidence room. We need to consider some internal controls to apply to our evidence that allow it to be easily identifiable to our agency, while also working as a deterrent from any possible theft or manipulation of the evidence. An effective method of doing so is using an embossing stamp, where you place the stamp around the sealed area of the envelope, as well as at another location, usually at the opposite corner of the first stamp. In doing this, it makes it extremely difficult to reopen the evidence, without destroying the stamp, thereby alerting others to tampering.
Once this item has been inspected, analyzed, sealed, returned from the lab, and processed, storage of said narcotics should be done separately, and away from all other types of evidence. Again, having a negative pressure system operating in that space is important. It not only maintains air quality, but it ensures that your personnel won’t get sick, suffer long term health problems, and that no damage such as airborne mold, will occur inside your storage area.
Transfers of Evidence
Focusing on the capabilities of your evidence management system, you should be able to record each and every move an individual piece of evidence makes. We touched on this earlier in the article, but we can’t state it enough, your system should not be using “shortcuts” or other workarounds to specify movement. Whether it’s temporary storage, crime lab, court, transfer to another agency, or any other movement, your system should be able to handle not only the type of movement, but should have geocoded, cross-indexed physical addresses assigned to the locations where evidence could possibly be routed to. Additionally, evidence personnel should be able to add addresses on the fly. This helps tremendously when evidence is ordered returned to a property owner, or sent out to an auctioning service, or donated to an organization. This should be standard in any evidence management system, but we’re willing to bet that most systems out there don’t do it. When it comes to transfers to courts or other agencies, a simple solution to documenting the transfer, is to require the subpoenas for the evidence to be presented, in the case of a court transfer, and official requests on agency letterhead, from the requesting agency, in the case of an agency transfer. Personnel transferring items to court, should be required to report said items back to the evidence room by the end of the day, unless they are being held at court as an exhibit, in which case that personnel needs to obtain a signed receipt from the court reflecting that status. But one more safeguard, that again should be available in your evidence management system, is to have the person ultimately responsible for the evidence, to sign electronically. While it’s important to capture receipt from the court, using their own document, it is also important to capture a second signature using your own system, which allows for real time updating, so that signature is captured instantly in your system, along with the personal information of the person signing for the item at court. This can be extended quite easily in an agency transfer, where the letterhead described earlier is supplied, and the person who brings it then signs the evidence out. In both cases, we now have dual confirmation that the evidence has been removed from our control, and who is responsible thereafter. These two scenarios present some of the biggest lapses in evidence room accountability, and by incorporating dual confirmation into policy, you remove perceived questionable practices and results.
Further, this can apply to transfers heading to a crime lab. In this scenario, the personnel transferring the evidence signs it out, delivers it to the crime lab, and receives a signature from the representative at the lab, again obtaining their personal information. And again, if evidence is signed back out for investigation purposes, agency letterhead stating the pertinent information of the case, what evidence is needed, and who will be responsible for it. From an interagency perspective, this can add redundancy that’s not always well received. However, if your evidence management system is at all modern, it should have a feature whereby the personnel responsible for investigating any piece of evidence can request the item through the system, which has on file any formal documentation, and they can sign the request, along with their supervision, electronically, and that request would then prompt an alert to your evidence personnel, along with an adding an entry to your evidence log where the same personnel sign the item out. In this example, we’re still getting dual confirmation, but we’re tracking it quicker, processing it quicker, and the overall feeling of redundancy is greatly reduced on both ends.
Destruction of Narcotics
Getting back to our storage concerns, once narcotics items are deemed available for destruction, our evidence personnel should have the capability of logging the items as being ready for destruction, and there should be space in their narcotics storage area to place items ready for destruction, so that they’re separated from all other evidence, still pending an outcome. When it comes to your retention/purging schedules, it’s common to see policy that demonstrates the use of quantity or by a certain date, for narcotics evidence to be destroyed. In many instances, using the date method, agencies will use a quarterly schedule, where narcotics evidence is destroyed at the end of every quarter, regardless of amount. In other instances, agencies require their evidence personnel to wait until they have a certain weight, or cases, to then dispose of the evidence. Both scenarios map out the two main arguments when it comes to purging. One, is addressing efficiency of resources (quantity), the other automation (quarterly). With a timed schedule, it becomes an automatic part of the job, and personnel always know when they’re doing what, which leaves less guess work. In the other example, it should leave less argument, but does not always. While personnel may have a certain number of cases to destroy, the activity isn’t linked to a date. And if that same personnel knows they have another 15 cases that can be removed in less than a week, it becomes beneficial for them to “extend” the threshold. Some agencies can manage this kind of outcome, but others struggle with it. Whichever way you decide, make sure you have the appropriate policy, and training, in place to mitigate any risk that may present itself. Your evidence management system should be able to batch move the items from their storage status, to “Evidence for Destruction” status, and then give you a multi-layered confirmation of actual destruction. Once those items are moved into the status deemed for destruction, setting a date for the actual destruction should be an option, and alerts for that date can be placed in the system, for agency personnel involved in the process.
The stages and activities surrounding evidence handling and storage may seem basic, but they’re anything but. In trying to address all the various concerns, one needs to recognize how much information goes into a proper knowledge base for dealing with evidence, especially from the perspective of evidence personnel. Handling evidence while having constant exposure to it can lead to safety and health risks that any agency must address, and failing to do so puts personnel at undue risk, that is ultimately a point of liability. Make sure to incorporate a thorough training and construction plan into any evidence room build, or rebuild. And certainly, separate your narcotics evidence away from all other narcotics.
Be safe out there!