Evidence Management – When Good Intentions Threaten the Integrity of Your Evidence

Posted on: Apr 27, 2023

Categories: Evidence Management

In this webinar, Shawn talked about three things that he sees in the field over, and over, and over again…. three examples of good intentions, that have potentially gigantic consequences for evidence that is stored. Consequences that threaten the integrity of your evidence.

Shawn jumped right in by saying, “We try to put resources on there that will be beneficial to you. There’s even a little self-audit tool that you can access through our website that will give you a quick health check on your agency’s evidence operations. Take advantage of the resources that we put out there. Hopefully, you’ll find some utility in it. If not, let us know. We would love to improve what we do.

I’d also like to point out the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook, which now has over 1000 members. We started this community back at the beginning of the pandemic. If you remember, that was a time when we didn’t go outside very much, and we didn’t get to connect with people, so we tried to do a little something online. 

It’s a great place to ask questions, and hopefully, you can find some answers. It is a good resource for you. I would encourage you to check it out and join. We’ve got folks moderating it. It is an exclusive group for evidence custodians. So we do try to vet people and make sure that they’re actually working in the industry or have some tie some connection to the industry so that you don’t feel like you’re airing your dirty laundry in public. 

I’d also like to say thank you to Tracker Products. This is made possible through our partnership with them. I would encourage you to look up their evidence management software. 

But now, on with the show… As I mentioned before, we’re gonna stage an intervention today. We’re gonna have an intervention for good intentions. There are three things that I see as I go around the country, doing training and consulting work. 

And I’m convinced there are three things that start out because of our very good intentions, but they can end up biting you in the end. They can be very critical issues, important issues, things that don’t keep us up at night – like losing evidence – but they are critical issues that we probably need to think more about.

Evidence Management

In many of the agencies that I have been to personally, or met during training, I see almost nothing but good intentions. People are really interested in doing the right thing. They work hard; they’re trying to do more with less. And those are really good intentions. 

The three good intentions I’m talking about today are A) Saving costs and spending less when you don’t have a large budget. B) Helping people is another great intention. C) Reduce, reuse, and recycle. 

But, those great intentions may have unintended consequences.

We’re gonna talk about the unintended consequences of those issues, why we need to change, and what we can do differently as a result. So three interventions, all of them in C major: Cold storage, Corrections, and Conversions. 

We’re not talking about intentions that are empirically bad. We’re talking about a competition between values and these are actual ethical dilemmas. If you’ve gotta choose between something that’s clearly bad and something that is clearly good, it’s pretty easy to make that choice. We wouldn’t even need to have a discussion.

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But, a lot of times, we’re talking about competing values. 

For Cold Storage, the two competing values are saving costs or spending less and the appropriate storage of evidence. We have to choose between those two values. And as an evidence custodian, and as a proponent for best practices and standards related to evidence management, I lean more toward value number two. 

With Corrections, it’s the same value. When we correct evidence for officers or when we do evidence corrections on their behalf, that competes with the exact same value – helping people – in a slightly different way and with dramatically different long-term consequences. 

When it comes to Conversions, it’s a great thing to reduce, reuse and recycle. I’ve got a recycling bin full of plastic bottles and cardboard boxes from Amazon. But when we talk about converting evidence to agency use or property to evidence use, there are many different values depending on the situation that compete with the value of reduce, reuse, and recycle. 

Some of them are ethical issues, and some of them are disposition issues. But you can see we’re in competition between two different values in each of these areas. So let’s hit the first one…

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Cold storage. I’m gonna read you a bedtime story, from the NIST Biological Evidence Preservation Handbook. If you are not extremely familiar with this document, it is something that should absolutely be a resource for you and your agency when it comes to dealing with biological evidence. 

NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, has developed this biological evidence handbook alongside: evidence custodians, evidence organizations like IAPE, SANE nurses, and with people that run labs. A lot of different stakeholders have come together to help develop this handbook specifically for us. And it is a great resource. 

When I go to evidence rooms, especially if I’m doing consulting work, I find typically find that 95% of the cold storage units that I see in use across the country – big agencies, small agencies, everywhere in between – they’re using consumer refrigerators from like Home Depot. 

If they’re not using consumer refrigerators from Home Depot, they’re converting refrigerators that they seized 20 years ago from a dope sale, and they’re using that for their evidence now. So 95% of what I see across the country as far as cold storage for biological evidence are consumer refrigerators or converted consumer refrigerators.

5% of the refrigerators that I see are either scientific refrigerators, lab refrigerators, or specific evidence refrigerators. And it makes me so very happy to see those when I travel around the country and look at new things.

Let me explain why. They’re not just a shiny bell, whistle, or the fact that the temperature is displayed on an evidence or scientific or lab refrigerator. It’s actually the definition of cold storage that makes a difference. 

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When we talk about something being refrigerated, we’re not just talking about, ‘It’s in the fridge.’ ‘Room temperature’ depends on the room. Right now our air conditioner is not working properly, so the room-temperature here is about 80 degrees. So room temperature means something different depending on the room you’re in. 

Refrigerated is a temperature that’s controlled between two degrees Celsius and eight degrees Celsius. Or for those of us in the United States, it’s between 36 degrees Fahrenheit and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, with less than 25% humidity. 

And this is the big difference between cold storage designed for labs and evidence and cold storage designed for chicken and fruit. Chicken and fruit refrigerators don’t control humidity levels. That’s not what they’re intended to do. They’re intended to cool food down to a range of temperatures, but not necessarily control the humidity. 

In fact, you know the little meat and cheese and fruit boxes in a consumer refrigerator? The reason that they’re there is to shield them a little bit from humidity and the outside storage conditions of the refrigerator. 

When I do consulting or inspection work, I bring two little refrigerator meters, both of them  measure temperature and humidity. I let them set for four hours in the fridge so they’d have time to acclimate and adjust to the humidity levels from being placed outside the refrigerator to being inside. On one visit in particular, one meter showed 67% humidity, and the other was 58% humidity. 

They were at two different levels within the same refrigerator, and each one showed two different readings, the temperature was the same, but they revealed wildly different humidity levels. Levels well above that 25% humidity level that are required to store biological evidence. If you’re using a consumer refrigerator, more than likely you are storing your biological evidence in a very cold sauna. An environment that has between 40 and 70% humidity.

That’s why your boxes and packages are a little bit soggy because there’s a lot of moisture in those environments. Now, I wanna do a little experiment. My refrigerator that holds beverages here in the office is a little bit better. I’ve cranked mine down to almost freezing. So my humidity levels are a little better controlled. 

Looking at these meters, I’ve got 2.5 degrees Celsius and 38% humidity on that one. Let’s see how it stacks up with this one. The second meter is negative 0.7 degrees Celsius and 35% relative humidity. Now, the reason I did that is to show you a couple of things.

One – Temperature and humidity levels fluctuate within the same refrigerator if you use a consumer refrigerator. So that shows 40% humidity – 15% more than we should store evidence at. When you open the door of a refrigerator or a freezer, the humidity levels skyrocket until it reacclimates. 

So, consumer cold storage is not great for biological evidence. It clearly does not fall within the tolerances of appropriate storage for biological evidence. So what conclusions can we draw about cold storage? Consumer refrigerators save you money; unfortunately, it is also potentially going to damage the evidence inside your refrigerator.

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When we make the choice to save a little money by not buying the right equipment, we are knowingly and intentionally creating an inappropriate storage environment for biological evidence. We shouldn’t do that. If we value what biological evidence is able to accomplish for us, it’s worth a one-time investment. 

But the real question is, What can I do? I mean, we have a junkie old Norge refrigerator. How do we change that? 

Well, we’ve got to start making business cases. We’ve got to start establishing a business case for the right equipment that will do the right thing. And I would use the standards that you can find in the NIST Biological Evidence Handbook to start building a business case to resource better storage equipment for your agency with respect to biological evidence.

A simple question to start with is, Do you think it’s okay if we don’t store our evidence the way it needs to be stored? Should we knowingly store the evidence in a way that’s going to impugn the integrity of that evidence and degrade the value of that forensically? The answer is almost always no. And it always should be. No. 

So that’s our intervention for cold storage. We need to get away from consumer refrigerators. It’s a bad idea, and it happens all over the place all the time. And we need to stop doing that. 

My second intervention – this one is low-hanging fruit – is Corrections.

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I see this all over the country, whenever I consult or do training… Custodians making corrections for officers… for a lot of different reasons. One, because most evidence custodians are generally, genuinely helpful people. They don’t want to have an officer come back and have to do something minor if they can just do it on their behalf. 

You can see a few things up here on the screen. There’s a package that’s not sealed correctly,  a package that’s sealed with tamper tape, and a package that’s not sealed with nearly enough tape to close the package. Common issues. There’s also a little knife or a tool sticking out of a paper bag. These are things that we see all the time. 

My favorite is the firearm which is not stored safely. It is zip tied to the box, but it’s not zip tied in  a way that you can see inside the go-hole. And the hammer is all the way back. So let’s say the gun is loaded, one drop with a live round in the go hole, and it will fire. And those are corrections that we would probably want to address. 

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Here is the issue correcting officer submission errors…Does it save you more time to do it yourself instead of having an officer come in? Yes, it does save time. Is it a really nice thing to do? Yes, it is a really nice thing to do. 

I’m not gonna argue with those two points, but what I will say is the biggest reason for correcting our corrections behaviors – with respect to officer submissions – is that it perpetuates a culture of doing things wrong. If someone fixes something for me and I never know that it’s a problem, it’s never called to my attention that I did something wrong. I’m going to keep doing it wrong. 

That’s just the way humanoids work. I’m not gonna suddenly have this epiphany of correctness and start to change my ways if it’s always being done for me in the background. So when we take in evidence, and we correct it on behalf of the officer as an act of kindness, or to save time, or just avoid a conversation with them, what we’re actually doing is perpetuating a culture of doing things wrong. And it is a slippery slope. 

But here is the biggest reason why correcting an officer’s submission errors is dangerous. Sometimes, depending on the type of error that we correct, we can actually create material falsifications in our chain of custody documentation. If we add information that was not provided by the officer, or we read through the notes of the case, and we add information in, then we are injecting something that we would very likely need to be able to testify to directly into our documentation. 

If you don’t have that information firsthand, you derive it secondhand. It is very difficult to know and to be able to testify that that is accurate. Moreover, it might not be accurate. We can’t make those leaps of logic without direct information from the officer.  They should be involved in the correction of that. They should be involved in putting that information there in the first place. 

So, we don’t want to set ourselves up for a lie of omission or an accidental or inadvertent falsification of information. If we put a time in a blank or seal something for somebody on a date and time, that wasn’t the time the evidence was sealed, that’s a material falsification of the chain of custody data. 

If evidence gets turned in on Friday unsealed, and I see it on Monday and seal it, put my signature on it… Yeah, that is the day that I sealed it, but that’s not the date that it was sealed. I’m not the person that sealed it, but that’s the information that we’re implying with seals. So those are things to think about with our correction behaviors and intervention. 

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So, one of the values that are in competition with being helpful and nice is by doing so it’s actually competing with having accuracy in our documentation. It’s competing with the value of having an expectation of competence from the officers that submit evidence. And sometimes it’s in conflict with the value of telling the truth. 

So what can you do? We can establish an expectation. One, in order for an officer to do the correct thing, we have to provide them with a resource that defines and describes the right thing. That would be an evidence submission manual or a packaging manual. We can also provide them with visual aids. We can teach them, and we can coach them even though they might not seem to like it. It is helpful, and then we can hold ’em accountable for doing it right.

Having them correct their own mistakes teaches them not to make those mistakes. Again, that’s the way some of us learn… by making mistakes. If we’re not aware of the mistakes we’re not gonna learn. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t be helpful and nice, but also remember what’s important here… effectiveness and accuracy, the integrity of our evidence, and the integrity of our chain of custody documentation. That’s what’s at stake when we do something that’s purely just nice and purely for our own convenience. 

Yes. there is a tendency – if we expect officers to correct their mistakes – that we will develop a reputation as someone that is un unnecessarily critical of an officer’s performance. A lot of that depends on how we approach them, how we carry ourselves, and how we interact with people. That can have a lot to offset some of those effects. If people understand that you are trying to help them preserve the integrity of evidence associated with their cases, that can offset some of that.

But making that change, to having them correct the evidence is something that I really feel like we’ve got to start becoming better at if we ever have the expectation that they’re gonna learn. This is a relationship business. 

These patrol officers have to know when they screw something up, and you send them a reminder, that this is a relationship. You’re trying to help them, by working with them. This is a team effort. Everyone wins when we protect and preserve the integrity of evidence. And that relationship is key and critical in order to continue that process.

Let’s move on to the third intervention. This one I think is more important than correcting corrections behaviors. And this one might step on some toes. I want to encourage you to develop an aversion to conversion. 

What I mean by developing an aversion to conversion is that we practice converting property or evidence to agency use at an alarming rate at many different agencies across the country. The agency I retired from had a lot of large screen TVs held over from the running gun, dope era. We would seize drugs, We would seize money. And because large flat-screen TVs were a thing of beauty and novelty, we would, for some reason, seize the TV as well. 

I don’t know how a TV has ever been used in the commission of a drug transaction. Maybe if they turned it upside down and were cutting up drugs on the screen. But even that wouldn’t be very effective because TVs are best held upright. But we had a lot of TVs, we would always convert those to agency use. That was just the culture and practice at our agency. Now, flat-screen TVs have gone down in price, so we don’t see that nearly as often. We don’t see the drug task force seizing big TVs the way we used to. 

Which begs the question, if we don’t see it now, why did we see it then? I think we saw it then because it was a novelty and if we seized it as a forfeiture, we could convert it to agency use. And that’s a dangerous, slippery slope that we start going down when we start taking stuff from people. 

I see a lot of different places converting tools. If we need wrenches to fix our shelving in the evidence room, well let’s just convert those to agency use. 

The worst, most egregious one is ammo. At our agency, we would convert ammo to agency use. And there are some very compelling reasons not to do that. I was talking with James Nally the other day. In the past, his agency converted a big pile of ammo. One of them was a really hot hand reload, and it blew up a gun in somebody’s hand. 

And that happens. That is not an urban myth that happens. I’ve seen it happen on the range before. A hot reload had just blown up the barrel of a gun, and it’s not a good thing. 

Why would we trust the ammo that comes in from anonymous sources, and, do we really want to put that inside the gun that may save us someday? Nobody should do that. But we do it all the time with ammo. 

So I’m gonna build a case for developing an aversion to conversion because I think conversions can cause some dilemmas that we don’t necessarily we don’t need to get engaged with. 

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Now, some truth… Converting property evidence for agency use appropriately following the laws in your particular state and region can save you a little bit of money. There are some nice tools and things that come into our possession in many different ways. So there’s nice stuff there that’s available.

It can also reduce landfill waste. Rather than fill up a dumpster with tools and tire irons and floor jacks and the things that officers tend to take on property crimes that never get used for evidence. And it just fills up the landfill. So those are some legitimate issues related to conversions that I will acknowledge at the forefront. But, I want you to think about the unintended consequences of conversions. 

Converting property or evidence to agency use can literally blow up in your face. I mean specifically with ammo, but there are a lot of different things within the property room that we try to convert that we have no idea about the safety of that particular item, how it was used, or how it’s previous owner treated it. And if it’s coming into our hands, there are chances that that person wasn’t the most conscientious person in the world. That’s probably why we got it in the first place. 

But more importantly and probably more significantly is that converting property evidence to agency use can create some ethical issues related to the 4th Amendment – fourth and 14th depending on your state. When we take things from somebody, it’s our obligation to seize it according to the law. But it’s really our ultimate obligation to get it back to its rightful owner. 

If we seize things with the end goal in mind of; Man, we could really use that, that’s where the ethical dilemma exists. And I do know that it has been part of the culture and practice of law enforcement to seize things that weren’t necessarily directly related to criminal instruments or fruits of the crime or even evidence that was directly related to the crime. So we really create some ethical dilemmas when we convert things to agency use.

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If we get a lot of value outta the evidence that we convert, how hard do we try to get it back to its known or original owner? Those are some issues that come up from time to time. 

Converting property to evidence for agency use also wastes time and energy that you don’t have. Typically to do a conversion, it requires a memo to a chief executive, or an impartial magistrate – a judge – to sign off on it. So that’s a memo, that’s a court order. Depending on your jurisdiction, that could be a couple of weeks of time. And quite honestly, the value that we get out of converting property or evidence to agency use wastes time and energy that we need to be spending somewhere else. 

You probably need to spend more time disposing of evidence and getting it out the door, than spinning your wheels and trying to devote energy to converting that stuff. Here’s the really tricky and evil thing about converted property evidence. When we convert property evidence to agency use, regardless of our best intentions, what we do is turn ‘disposed of’ into, Let’s store it somewhere else, and then we’ll give it back to them when they break it. 

I was not over property evidence at our agency when we started seizing large flat-screen TVs on dope transactions. But I was there when those TVs started to break. And invariably, if something is converted to agency use for some reason, rather than throwing it in the trash at the end of its useful life, they bring it back and have some crazy expectation that we’re gonna know what to do with it after we’ve removed all the labels, the serial numbers, and we have no ability to trace. 

It’s like we put it in its grave – and that’s what we want out of disposed of evidence – but, converted evidence has a way of coming back to haunt us in many different ways. So I would love to see us develop a stronger aversion to conversions for those reasons.

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So our competing values here… saving money, reducing, reusing, reusing, and recycling versus the ethical dilemmas that it can impose. Disposition of evidence issues, time and energy that we waste or could spend elsewhere, and then safety. Converting ammo to agency use is a horrible practice. 

So what can I do? Well, you can be selective in those transactions. When your agency decides  that they need to convert property to agency use, follow the law, be selective, and make a business case for why sometimes going to the hardware store and spending $5 on a wrench is worth more than asking the chief for the wrench that’s sitting in your evidence fault and then asking a judge for that same wrench. Sometimes it’s just cheaper and more cost-effective to buy those things directly with department funds.”

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