Let’s discuss physical evidence for a few minutes. I’m talking about the actual process by which an item or items comes into the evidence room.
Your agency, no doubt, already has its own policies and procedures that cover it, but maybe we can stimulate conversation and, perhaps, give you some pointers that may help.
First of all, some officers might need training on what is actually evidence and what isn’t evidence. A good rule of thumb is, very simply, does this item have any relevance to the incident under investigation? Does it add value to the case in any way? If so, log it. If there is any question, log it. If the answer is no, it’s probably not evidence and you don’t need it.
When an officer collects physical evidence at a crime scene, he or she should, ideally, photograph it in place prior to ever handling it, and those photos should be uploaded to your agency digital evidence management system. Handling the actual evidence should be done with gloves, so as to prevent the destruction of fragile fingerprints and/or DNA evidence, and also to prevent the transfer of fingerprints or DNA from the officer TO the evidence. Common sense applies here. We all know that not every case is going to the lab. But if there is a chance, even a small one, that it might be necessary at some point, wear gloves. In fact, try to get your officers in the habit of wearing gloves every time, on every case.
Items of evidence should always be logged at first opportunity and never, for any reason, be retained by the officer past the end of a duty shift. The physical process of logging evidence depends on your own procedures and is probably dictated by the type of evidence management system your agency uses. If you have a modern evidence management system, provide as much detail about the item(s) as possible in your item description. If you are still using a paper based system, do your best and follow it up with a detailed report.
Packaging guidelines should be established and enforced, and officers need to be provided the appropriate packaging materials. Consider the use of gun and knife boxes, sharps containers of various sizes, paper and plastic evidence bags in various sizes, possibly even cardboard boxes in various sizes. Officers should be encouraged to utilize the smallest possible packaging material for a given item.
Does your agency evidence policy address perishable food items? What about flammable or explosive items? Your agency may be able to immediately release certain stolen items back to owners, but consult with your prosecutor’s office prior to doing so.
Provide officers with training on not only how to package particular types of evidence, but explain why certain things are necessary. For instance, you might encounter less resistance if you explain that it isn’t necessarily YOU demanding that all items be heat sealed or sealed with evidence tape, but that the lab absolutely won’t accept the items without it.
Some items should always be logged with assistance from others. Cash, for instance, should always be counted by two officers, both of whom are accountable. Firearms should be cleared and verified by a second officer. You might even consider requiring a second officer to verify drug weights prior to logging. Again, all of these things need to be established in a written policy and enforced. Sloppy evidence handling is something that none of us should ever tolerate. Have a procedure in place for rejecting sloppily handled items and don’t be afraid to use it.
Teach your officers how to package and submit “like items”. By that I mean, do they need to make 14 evidence entries for those 14 pairs of shoplifted socks? Or can those 14 items be treated as 1 item? A good rule of thumb, in our experience, is that each item that is a distinctly different TYPE of evidence needs to be logged separately. Alcohol should not be packaged and submitted with jewelry. A firearm should never be packaged and submitted with narcotics.
Officers need to understand the importance of drying items contaminated with bodily fluids prior to packaging, and packaging those items in paper rather than plastic. Mold and mildew will absolutely destroy physical evidence over time. These items should also always be clearly marked as a bio-hazard.
Items with serial numbers should be checked through NCIC prior to being logged. If that check results in a “hit”, it is imperative that evidence room personnel be alerted. If no hit is generated, those items with serial numbers should be checked again by evidence personnel prior to final disposition.
Each specific item (or group of like items) needs to be clearly marked with the case number and the item number. Better still is a printed bar code label containing that information and more, possibly a brief description of the item, the seizure date, the officer name, seizure location, etc...
Chain of custody is important for each and every item submitted. If your evidence management system doesn’t have the capacity to accurately document chain of custody, it will need to be done in some other manner. No exceptions.
There are, obviously, many things to think about when drafting policies and procedures on the handling of physical evidence. Hopefully we’ve touched on one or two things that you hadn’t previously considered.