Is your agency overwhelmed by the influx of both digital and physical evidence? Are you seeking a better way to organize, document, and manage your inventory?
Keeping up with almost insurmountable evidence can be daunting, and an inadequate management system only exacerbates the issue.
Redundant processes, excessive paper trails, inaccurate data, lost evidence, and compromised chain of custody can cause numerous issues, including risking case integrity, agency embarrassment, and even internal corruption.
In November 2019, it was revealed that dozens of deputies from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office failed to book evidence they collected and, in several cases falsified police reports by stating that the evidence had been entered. One investigator kept evidence, including heroin and paraphernalia, locked in an office desk drawer.
The law enforcement evidence management function exists for an agency to receive, catalog, store, and maintain the integrity of evidence and property. This allows for effective prosecution as well as confirming innocence.
Even after disposition of a case, agencies have the legal obligation to restore property to rightful owners or facilitate the legal disposition of property in their possession.
The collection of both physical and digital evidence creates procedural demands to which law enforcement must strictly adhere.
Traditionally, all this information has been cataloged and stored in logbooks, paper documentation, file folders and evidence boxes using manual processes. However, manual documentation is time consuming, labor intensive, and prone to mishandling. Evidence also has a way of being misplaced—temporarily or permanently— which can result in acquittals or liability issues.
In 2019, a Walnut Creek officer mishandled evidence in dozens of cases. The first case in which a bag of Vicodin, glass pipes, suspected liquid heroine and syringes were found, the officer often held off on booking video or photos into evidence until a property technician reminded him. Investigators reviewed a total of 116 cases from 2015 and 2016 in which the officer handled video or photo evidence. Out of 116 cases, investigators found 31 in which the officer failed to book items into evidence.
Traditionally, a chain of custody records only how evidence is submitted, stored, and disposed of. These traditional records often lack any documentation about the process of evidence management itself, such as the security of evidence in custody, the quality of the facility and storage environments, and records of accountability.
This can weaken the defensibility of evidence in court, and the ability to utilize evidence to craft a clear timeline tied to the evidence crime becomes exceedingly difficult. When such questions arise, reasonable doubt is created, impacting the prosecution’s ability to clear cases in a timely manner.
Evidence is only as good as its chain of custody. In many cases, evidence mismanagement is the result of systemic problems behind processing, tracking, and storing of evidence.
This places extraordinarily strong requirements on the integrity of the chain of custody, the personnel involved, and the duty of care of the organization responsible.
For those in law enforcement, chain of custody can come to be regarded as a rudimentary concept. Cases of mishandled evidence are all too common.
Evidence room audits across the country continue to reveal instances of missing evidence resulting in the dismissal of criminal cases, and each case further erodes the public’s trust in law enforcement.
In 2022, it was revealed that the Fall River Police Department had lost two years of drug-case evidence, explaining that the controlled-buy logs for 2019 and 2020 had gone missing. The investigation began after an alarming volume of unsecured oxycodone, amphetamines, heroin, crack cocaine, and fentanyl were located in a detective’s desk.
What is Evidence Management?
Evidence chain of custody is an essential, fundamental practice of our criminal justice system. It allows the state to verify the authenticity of evidence and prove that it has not been altered or damaged while in law enforcement custody, in any way that could disrupt a criminal case.
In 2017, a Novato, California Police Officer repeatedly lost or failed to book evidence such as body-worn camera recordings, photos, witness statements, and a voicemail threat made against a victim. This happened despite several instances when he stated in his reports that he had booked items into evidence.
Each agency has an obligation to store and protect evidence in its custody, and equally important, an obligation to legally dispose of the property. Best practices for the various aspects of the evidence and property function cannot be overstated.
Evidence management is a critical facet of the criminal justice system and one of the most important jobs in the entire police operation. At every stage, handlers of evidence must ensure that it has not been compromised, contaminated, or degraded and that its chain of custody is tracked.
A fired Orange County sheriff’s deputy plead guilty to a reduced charge of filing a false police report after he wrote that he booked evidence when he had not. An investigation revealed widespread failure of deputies to book evidence on time, if at all.
Using logbooks or spreadsheets to manage huge volumes of evidence is no longer justifiable. The proper management of evidence is so important to agencies, that formal standards for the management, administration, and handling of evidence are now an essential part of operations.
Chronological documentation of chain of custody begins with seizure and continues beyond its production in court until its retention by law enforcement ends.
An effective evidence management system can successfully thwart chain of custody challenges by third parties. Failure to apply proper standards to evidence processing can threaten the integrity of a case and trigger severe criticism of the agency.
In early 2020, the Salisbury Police Department released details about a civilian police department employee accused of stealing items from the department’s evidence facility. The employee had stolen $260,000 from an evidence storage facility.
An effective evidence management system not only documents evidence, but can bring together all the evidence data related to a specific case in an easily accessible repository. Policy-based controls ensures that only evidence data relevant to a specific case can be accessed by those authorized to do so.
What is Evidence Management Software?
Best Practices for evidence management include detailed documentation, automation, better accountability, and efficient workflows. Evidence management software can help implement and facilitate such practices.
Evidence Management software is a digital solution that is designed to easily manage the evidence management process in an accurate and timely manner. It keeps everything in a centralized database that streamlines the vital process of maintaining evidence.
This is done through automation of evidence-related tasks, including storing, editing, updating, viewing, analyzing, and sharing evidence and information easily.
Evidence Management ensures that law-enforcement and prosecutorial entities can get all the evidence they need, when they need it, to do their jobs effectively and in accordance with the law.
The digitizing of evidence also reduces the need to handle the original evidence until it is presented. This reduction of handling lessens the likelihood of deliberate tampering or accidental contamination and reduces chain of custody requirements.
An audit of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office covering three years found that 27% of the investigated deputies waited 31 days or longer before booking evidence. Nearly 300 items were not booked for more than a month during the audit period. A second review, which included a sampling of 450 reports, found that deputies in 57 cases said they had booked the evidence when they had not.
Improving the storage and documentation of evidence in custody is more important now than ever. Implementing a more rigorous chain of custody process will help ensure the integrity of evidence in any agency’s custody and improve outcomes of legal cases.
An evidence management system can effectively manage the investigative and forensic process with a complete audit trail of all physical and digital property and evidence from the point of capture, right through to court and final disposal.
Paper documentation and outdated software systems are becoming outdated. With modern technology and automation around every corner, agencies that maintain antiquated processes often find themselves in the headlines.
What to Look For?
Consider these features when deciding if your Physical and Digital Evidence Management Software enables you to meet the needs of modern policing:
- Responsive and efficient, allowing you to work from anywhere and on any internet connected device.
- Includes an integrated system with the chain of custody.
- Site management of multiple sites allowing for managing separate physical inventory locations.
- Custom-tailored dashboard to display important inventory statistics with info-boxes and customizable widgets to easily access detailed information about your evidence.
- Intuitive and completely browser-based evidence solution that allows you to enter, view and edit records, print reports, barcode labels, and more via the web browser of your choice.
- An automated review to send notifications when cases are up for review, making the review and disposal process faster and more efficient.
- A professional, robust search function for any data in the system.
- Report customization module to design your own reports or edit standard system reports such as Chain of Custody, Barcode Labels, Inventory Discrepancy Reports, and many more according to your needs.
ERIN Technology’s ERIN7 is an end-to-end chain of custody software system for physical and digital evidence, providing fast and accurate data collection and control for evidence tracking and maintaining property, evidence, and inventory. We make the transition seamless and easy to use with consultation, implementation, training, and data integration.