Rethinking the traditional, linear view of chain of custody in evidence management

Posted on: Nov 07, 2019

Categories: Evidence Management

By Shawn Henderson

Executive Director, Evidence Management Institute

As Strong as the Weakest Link

The old adage about a chain only being as strong as the weakest link is true, especially when you’re talking about evidence management and chain of custody. Chain of custody is a fundamental principle of evidence management. Without a strong chain of custody, critical case evidence loses its value and character as evidence, becoming nothing more than a storage problem. A strong, secure chain of custody safeguards and helps ensure the equitable delivery of justice.

In our justice system, chain of custody can be the difference between the exoneration of the innocent and conviction of the guilty, or a miscarriage of justice. Since chain of custody is so foundational to both justice and evidence management, it’s important to take think critically about chain of custody to ensure the integrity of our evidence. It’s also important to remember that this is more than a piece of paper, and a taped and sealed package; there are lives impacted and affected by the cases they represent.

Traditional Chain of Custody

Most people view chain of custody as a piece of paper that documents the who, what, when, where and how about the history of each piece of evidence. That view of chain of custody is way too limited to meet the needs of the justice system. Looking a little deeper, the historical and legal definition of chain of custody is pretty easily broken down into three distinct elements.

Chain of custody is:

  • the state’s record to establish and prove that a particular item of evidence
  • can be positively identified as the actual item used in, or directly related to the alleged offense;
  • and that the item has not been materially altered, changed or been tampered with during custody.

Just from the definition of chain of custody, you can determine that a linear historical chain of custody document is insufficient to prove each of the elements required for an actual chain of custody. That piece of paper can cover the chain, but not the custody.

Missing Links: The Chain, Without Custody

A linear chain of custody record captures most of the chain, but missed several critical links related to custody. Ask yourself the question, is it possible to have a pristine and complete chain of custody document while storing your evidence in an unlocked hall closet that can be accessed by everyone in your department? Or is it possible to have that same pristine record and store evidence under conditions that grow mold like a mushroom factory? If we’re honest with ourselves the answer is yes.

Most traditional chain of custody documentation fails to capture some of the most critical information required to prove a true chain of custody. This leaves a lot of chain links scattered on the floor. The failure point of traditional chain of custody documentation falls into three main areas:

Security.  Without accurate documentation of security practices and historical access to evidence storage areas, we can’t prove the item has not been materially altered, changed or been tampered with during custody.

Storage Environment.  Without accurate documentation of storage conditions, we can’t prove that an item has been stored appropriately during custody.

Accountability.  Without accurate documentation of accountability processes, like regular inspections and annual audits and inventories, we can’t prove that we’ve stored and managed the item the way we say we do in our policies and procedures.

The Case for a 360° Chain of Custody

So, it might be time to take a second look at the way we think about chain of custody documentation. At the Evidence Management Institute, we believe in a systematic re-defined chain of custody model that we call the 360° Chain of Custody. The concept is not too complicated, it’s based on the principle that chain of custody documentation simply needs to cover both chain and custody. Traditional chain of custody documentation is still a critical component of the process. We absolutely need to know each who, what, when, where, why and how for every movement and turn while evidence is in our custody, but we don’t stop there.

A 360° Chain of Custody includes traditional chain of custody documentation, but also incorporates an account of all the documentation processes that create the item custody environment. It’s easier to look at a visual depiction of what we’re talking about rather than try and describe it word for word:

360 degree chain of custody

Secure the Chain

Ultimately, it’s about the fundamental integrity of the justice system. When we can establish and prove each of the elements of the accepted, legal definition of chain of custody through our documentation and practices; we can truly testify to the merits of our efforts as evidence custodians.

It’s absolutely important to do the right thing when it comes to evidence management, but when it goes to court, and your methods and practices are rightfully scrutinized, it’s the documentation that speaks the loudest. It’s the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Right now, the 360° Chain of Custody is the path less traveled, but it’s the path towards better evidence management and the strongest possible chain of custody for your evidence.