P&E: Storing Non-DNA Evidence
Written by John M. Vasquez   

PROPERTY & EVIDENCE
Storing and Securing Non-DNA Evidence


Advertisement


The diverse nature of the items you store calls for some different protocols and procedures.

There are a lot of different types and sizes of boxes and containers that are available for P&E rooms. Uses include the safe and secure storing of weapons of all kinds, from rifles to pistols to knives.

The storing of handguns in separate boxes makes a lot of sense. Many of the gun boxes have “tie-down” locations so the firearm cannot slide around inside. Some even have a window so you can view the item without opening the box.

In recent years, videotapes, CDs, and DVDs have become important items of evidence. You should find a way to package each item uniformly—and then store the items on shelves where they can be easily retrieved when they are needed.

WHAT DO firearms, currency, knives, and drugs all have in common when it comes to packaging and storing them in your property-and-evidence (P&E) room?

The answer: Nothing. They do not have one thing in common! And the fact that they have nothing in common is the very reason why P&E rooms across the country have different protocols for packaging and storing these items of evidence.

Over the last several years, much attention has been placed on properly packaging and storing DNA-related items, and rightly so. The evolution of DNA evidence has been phenomenal in not only proving guilt, but also in proving innocence.

But items that do not potentially bear DNA evidence are just as vital to proving and disproving cases. The very manner in which these items are handled—from the time they are collected at the crime scene until they are eventually disposed of—could be challenged by competent defense counsel. And then what? What is left of the case if that item is tossed and cannot be used as evidence due to an incomplete chain of custody?

Many agencies provide the same level of care and custody to all items in their possession, regardless of their evidentiary value. But there are just as many agencies that do not provide that level of care. My experience has shown that the problem is not that they do not care; instead, many times they are uninformed or simply lack resources.

Let’s face it: Had it not been for the O.J. Simpson trial, most P&E rooms would not have progressed to where they are today. History has shown that P&E rooms have frequently been the stepchild of agencies, stuck away in the basement, staffed by part-time employees with no training or by officers who have been disciplined or are on restricted duty for whatever reason. (That would be another article for another time: P&E-room Awareness.)

The methods or protocols for the packaging and storing of items such as firearms, currency, knives, and drugs varies, as do the reasons for the different protocols. A good place to begin this particular discussion is by taking a look at firearms.

Firearms

The most common—but least effective—method of packaging and storing firearms is to separate them into two sizes: long rifles and handguns. From that point, they are usually tossed into a bin with tags attached. I have seen as many as 40 to 50 handguns in one bin (all individual cases). They may be placed on a shelf or in barrels stored in the corner of the room with only a tag attached for identification. Fortunately, more care is taken to properly package firearms if DNA is present.

Imagine the nightmare of trying to locate a specific firearm using this method! The time it takes to look through a bin containing 50 handguns of various sizes can be mind-boggling. Furthermore, the chances of there being a misplaced firearm or one that was placed in the wrong location greatly increases. And what about those evidence tags? Have you attempted to locate a firearm only to discover that the evidence tags have inadvertently been torn from two or more firearms? In that situation, you are left scratching your head, wondering which tag goes with which firearm.

The more appropriate storage method for firearms is to purchase gun boxes. They are constructed of cardboard and provide “tie-down” locations within the box so the firearm cannot slide around inside. Some boxes also have a “window” so you can view the item after the box has been properly sealed. All of the gun boxes sold for P&E-room use have space on the box to write pertinent information for easy identification and accountability. They are fairly inexpensive when considering care, custody, control of the item, and the fact that this storage method is a timesaving measure. There are several styles offered by various companies.

There is an alternative to buying a new cardboard box for each and every weapon—and it might be a helpful alternative since agencies are having their budgets cut due to economic conditions. I recommend storage units with smaller, individualized compartments for storing handguns. This way, it takes less time to locate the item and chances of the evidence tag being inadvertently ripped off are greatly diminished. For long rifles, you can visit gun shops or military armories to see if they have old gun racks they would be willing to donate to your agency. If you have a handyman in the department, racks can be built at a minimal cost for supplies.

For any storage method used, always (and I do mean always), place a tie-strap through the barrel of handguns to let the next person who opens the box know the firearm is unloaded.

When storing firearms, additional security should always be considered. In fact, any accreditation process requires additional security within the P&E room. The best practice is an inner room with a metal door that is secured by a locking mechanism. The lock can range from a simple combination lock to a card-swipe device.

Many smaller agencies, however, are not afforded the luxury of having such a room. Their P&E room is typically an office that has been converted for use as a P&E room. In this case, you can still segregate firearms from the other property by installing a fence within the room with a locking gate, making sure the fence goes all the way to the ceiling. If your room or your budget still will not support a fence, then just segregate the firearms from the other property.

Knives and cutting instruments

Extra care should be taken with any item that can cut, slice, or stab. Like firearms, there are many containers on the market that can and should be used when storing or collecting this type of item. Just like firearms, too many agencies store knives and other cutting instruments unprotected in buckets or tossed into bins without any covering of the blade. This is a very dangerous practice. It is not a question of if an evidence technician gets cut or stabbed; it is a question of when.

Containers that are available from P&E-room suppliers range from card-board boxes (similar to gun boxes) to various sized see-through, plastic tubes with polystyrene foam or some other material on the bottom for the pointed end of the instrument.

As an alternative, if you do not have a budget for these tubes, you can use cardboard or polystyrene foam and cut it to fit the blade of the cutting instrument. (Be sure to use your own cutting instrument to do this. Do not use the evidence!) Then, with tape, secure the cardboard or polystyrene foam to the blade.

You can use these same procedures when a sword, machete, or other similar evidence item is received in the P&E room and a sheath is not available. Do not place the cutting instrument in an envelope or a plastic bag thinking that will suffice to protect you or the next person from being cut or stabbed.

Controlled substances

P&E rooms have the responsibility of maintaining the care, custody, and control of every item received (not just evidence), regardless of its value. The improper packaging and storage of controlled substances and their byproducts could produce a scenario that would alter the original condition of that item and other items around it—or it could even destroy those items. But an even more important aspect of properly packaging and storing controlled substances is your safety and the safety of your coworkers. This is one area where you do not want to skimp on the budget! There are many other areas where your department can cut the budget when necessary. This is not one of them.

Let’s begin by looking at the most common controlled substance that is received by P&E rooms: marijuana. Marijuana, if packaged improperly, will frequently produce a highly toxic fungus: aspergillus.

Aspergillus was first catalogued in 1729 by the Italian priest and biologist, Pier Antonio Micheli. While viewing the fungus with a microscope, he thought the shape resembled that of an aspergillum, a device used in Catholic and Anglican ceremonies to sprinkle holy water.

Aspergillus is highly aerobic and commonly grows as mold. Aspergillosis is a disease caused by aspergillus. Symptoms include fever, cough, chest pain or breathlessness—symptoms that occur in many other illnesses, making a proper diagnosis difficult. There are two major forms of the disease: (1) allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) that causes patients to have symptoms of significant respiratory morbidity similar to that of patients suffering from asthma, cystic fibrosis, and sinusitis; and (2) acute invasive aspergillosis. The risk of the latter form increases if the patient has weakened immunity from AIDS or from chemotherapy.

To avoid the growth of aspergillus on marijuana, be sure it is dry before sealing it in plastic—especially if it was just recently harvested. If necessary, find a secure location and spread out the leaves for an extended period of time to ensure they are completely dried. Use a heat sealer to seal the dried leaves in plastic. Then you can store the material in cardboard boxes. When sealing the boxes, put evidence tape on all corners and all edges of the box to make sure air cannot get into the box.

I have seen the results when marijuana is not properly packaged: After several months of storage, a layer of “dust” appears around the box. Not realizing what it is, you may just assume the room is dusty and sweep it up. Then you notice the “dust” is coming from the unsealed portions of the box. What happened is that the marijuana was still damp when it was initially packaged in plastic—and was not properly sealed—and the air subsequently got into the box, creating perfect growing conditions for the aspergillus fungus.

The packaging of cocaine and other powdered substances presents its own set of problems, although this type of packaging is more manageable. All powders should be packaged in plastic that is at least 8 mm (3/8 in.) thick. The thickness is necessary to prevent the powder from “sifting” through the plastic. Once sealed, you can place the plastic bag inside a brown paper bag for storage purposes.

Substances seized from methamphetamine labs require some special handling, packaging, and storage. Do not—I repeat, do not—store meth, cooking materials, or ingredients on a shelf or the floor of your P&E room! The chemicals associated with the manufacture of meth are highly volatile and produce a very pungent odor. These items, at the very least, need to be stored in an approved flammable-storage unit. It is recommended that they be stored in a well-ventilated chemical bunker that is separate from the P&E room.

When storing meth and associated cooking materials and ingredients, be cautious of what chemicals are stored side by side. The close proximity of one chemical to another may create spontaneous combustion. If you are unfamiliar with chemicals, check with your local fire department to be sure you are storing them safely.

When dealing with any type of controlled substance, always consider the worst-case scenario and handle the substances with extra care. Always wear personal protective equipment that includes plastic gloves (you may need to wear two pair, depending on the thickness of the glove); face mask or breathing apparatus (depending on the chemical); and an apron.

In addition to the above protocols, you should be aware that accreditation standards require controlled substances to be segregated from other property. If this is not already your agency’s policy, this is a standard you should truly want to pursue. This is not only because drugs are easy and tempting to pilfer, but also because of the health hazards that are associated with the storage of controlled substances.

Regardless of the storage location, you should always make sure that there is adequate ventilation in the storage area. Employees at an agency where I once worked experienced unusually high occurrences of headaches, bronchitis, and other breathing difficulties, especially on Mondays. An environmental specialist performed air-quality tests over a period of a week. The results concluded that the employees’ illnesses were directly related to the exceptionally high concentration of airborne contaminants. Monday morn-ings saw the levels spike ten times higher than the other days because the room was closed over the weekends. Based on the test results, the agency purchased a stand-alone air-handling system that provided proper ventilation for the room. Employee illnesses were significantly reduced, providing a win-win situation for the agency and its personnel.

Finally, check your state laws to see what the guidelines and rules are on the destruction of controlled substances. Some states allow for summarily destroying “excess quantities” of controlled substances at the scene after photographing the evidence and taking representative samples.

A word of caution:

Even if your state allows you this opportunity, check with your district attorney’s office before any destruction of controlled substances takes place. Sometimes prosecutors in the jurisdiction tend to get upset when you destroy evidence!

Currency and jewelry

Currency and jewelry should also be segregated from other evidence. Some departments store these particular items in a totally separate room. Some other departments prefer to store currency and jewelry in a locked cabinet inside the gun room—and this is an acceptable alternative to segregating currency and jewelry in a separate room.

When storing currency, always keep the least possible amount in your P&E room. If your agency seizes large sums of money from drug busts, establish a routine procedure where the money is deposited in a bank account shortly after confiscating it. Depositing money as quickly as possible takes away any temptation from dishonest personnel. Always have a witness stand by when counting and handling money.

Video cassettes, CDs, and DVDs

The photograph on Page 25 demonstrates an efficient process of storing VHS tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Take note that all of the items are all uniformly packaged and stored on the shelf for easy accountability and retrieval. The shelves are properly sized to maximize the available space.

And one last piece of advice: Do not store VHS cassette tapes next to metal items. If you do, you may discover in the future that your evidence has been inadvertently erased!

About the Author

John Vasquez is a Certified Evidence Technician through the Texas Associa-tion of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians (TAPEIT). Vasquez is a past president of TAPEIT and has worked in the field of evidence management for more than 20 years. His company, Mission: Control Consulting Group, LLC, provides consulting services in evidence management, leadership development, and employment issues. If you have questions about this article, you can reach Vasquez by e-mail at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it
Or you can visit his website: www.missioncontrolconsult.com


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"Property & Evidence: Storing and Securing Non-DNA Evidence," written by John M. Vasquez
March-April 2009 (Volume 7, Number 2)
Evidence Technology Magazine
Buy Back Issue

 
< Prev   Next >






Crime Scene Revisited

Faces of the victims recovered from the scene of a genocide.

Read more...