Evidence of a Problem

If it wasn't valuable, there wouldn't be so many motions to suppress it. If it wasn't important, nobody would care about its chain of custody. Yet if one watched the haphazard manner with which some cops handle evidence, they might get the impression it was little more than garbage.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Almost every cop is accustomed to inventorying his patrol car at some point on his tour of duty. At the start of the shift, we often search for items that may have been secreted in the back seat by a suspect brought in on the previous shift. At the end of the workday, we want to make sure our own relief doesn't find anything that our prisoners might have left behind to embarrass us—stuff that we somehow missed during cursory patdowns and the like. Often, these items turn out to be evidence—which is why it was hidden in the first place.

Some things we expect to find, especially small dime baggies (not so much when it's a Shetland pony).

On the other hand, there are evidence and property items that we're not supposed to find, but nonetheless do. Not in the car, but inside the station.

Here, next to the gun locker, a prisoner's car keys. There, on the copy machine, a crack pipe. That stolen/recovered purse? Atop the paper towel dispenser in the men's room.

Just who is responsible for leaving these pieces of evidence and property at their various sites of abandonment?

The handling—or mishandling—officer.

Here are some suggestions to help you hold on to your evidence—and your good reputation:

Don't carry the stuff when you don't need to. If you transported it to the station in your patrol car, leave it there until you book it (unless, of course, you need it to run your arrest by the watch sergeant).

Develop a routine—but don't be routine while you do it.

Be conscientious in your documentation. Take photos of the evidence and attach copies to your report. Itemize and accurately describe what you're booking. Use general descriptions. Don't write that a ring is gold unless you're an accredited assayer. Instead, use "gold-colored" or "yellow-hued." The same goes for seized narcotics. Write "a green leafy substance" or "a crystalline-like powder resembling…" If it's oregano or baking soda, then you won't leave yourself out to hang. (And no field taste testing just to appease your curiosity. Seems ridiculous to have to mention, but I've heard tale…)

Minimize the number of people that handle or come in contact with your evidence. Anything that compromises the chain of evidence not only leaves the case vulnerable to challenges, but also leaves you open to possible corruption allegations if any of it ends up missing.

Get the stuff into an evidence locker as soon as possible. This is particularly important in matters involving drug and dope money seizures.

It's easy to lose track of things when you're juggling 16 things. Most of the mistakes mentioned here have been committed by overwhelmed rookies. But burned out vets who've performed the same tasks hundreds of times are not immune from lapses of attention when it counts most.

So stay on top of your evidence. If it gets on top of you, it may be evidence of your losing something more than the articles in question.

Something like your job.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
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