Is There a Drug Problem Hiding in Your Property Room?
Written by Dr. Maria Pettolina   

This article appears in the November-December 2021 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that full issue here.

Article Courtesy of the Academy of Forensic Nursing

I SPENT CLOSE TO SEVEN YEARS in crime scene investigation before I discovered the “underground” world of property and evidence. I use the word underground because often these units are located in windowless basements of law enforcement agencies without a sufficient supply of sunlight or cell reception. Although these units are typically out of sight, they serve one of the most important roles in a law enforcement agency.

Before getting involved in property and evidence, any time I collected evidence from a crime scene, I would submit it into a locker and have no knowledge of that evidence’s movement until it was handed to me on the stand. Little did I know the hard-working professionals behind the scene were meticulously following important protocols to ensure my evidence made it into the courtroom.

I would soon educate myself on the intricate inner workings of the property and evidence unit, which I would come to immensely respect as the highest-liability section in a law enforcement agency. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for our P&E technicians, who carry the weight of a case on their shoulders and, sometimes, they quite literally carry the “weight” of the evidence to the courthouse.

In 2016, I was assigned a supervisory role in P&E and began learning the standards and requirements of national best practices in property and evidence under the mentorship of Steve Campbell, a national accreditor of P&E. I moved on from that agency and set off on an unexpected track as a growing (and still learning) expert in P&E. Although most of my time is spent as a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, I dedicate my remaining professional free time to working with agencies to achieve property and evidence accreditation. Most recently, I worked with a university police department, where they became the first university in the nation to become accredited in P&E through SCS Northwest Accreditation with Campbell.

I am now working with my third agency where I provide a full assessment of the property room and provide recommendations for meeting those national best practices. Most often, I am further retained to develop agency-specific policies and procedures, packaging manuals, training manuals, and case review/purging processes. Stepping outside of the “grey” area of crime scene investigation into the rigid “black-and-white” area of property and evidence has been unexpectedly rewarding, a humbling learning experience, and—believe it or not—fun!

“High Priority” items in a property room are evidence (or non-evidence) items that require additional steps, such as double-secured storage, weight verification, presumptive testing, and frequent audits and inspections. This type of property can include sexual assault kits, currency, jewelry, firearms, and drugs. These items, regardless of disposition (Evidence, Safekeeping, Found Property, etc.), should be removed from larger items such as backpacks and packaged individually. One of the highest-priority—and often misunderstood—items in a property room is drugs. Drugs, for purposes of this article, include marijuana, narcotics, and medication. Although it is not a common occurrence, we have heard of integrity issues in P&E rooms with drugs, either through accidental destruction or employee misconduct. Agencies need to develop robust policies and procedures to ensure the integrity of drug items in the property room.

 


Without tight protocols and procedures, under-secured drug evidence like oxycontin can be a temptation and liability in your property room. Photo: DEA

My best advice to all P&E technicians is to work with their supervisors and attorneys before developing policies and procedures for drugs. In addition, P&E can utilize consultants and accreditation experts for better insight and advice on national best practices. If the agency is accredited (IACLEA or CALEA) or the lab is accredited, P&E must be familiar with the standards to ensure new policies and procedures are compliant. Most importantly, P&E needs to know its state laws in reference to drugs and be in the loop when those laws change or are updated. After you are familiar with your internal and state requirements, six areas should be addressed in reference to drugs in your property room. These six areas are collection, packaging, intake, storage, removal, and purging.

Collection
When an officer or CSI collects a drug from a scene or subject, several important steps need to be followed before submitting the item to P&E. First, the member should provide photographs of the drug as found (in situ, if possible). Second, the member should transport the drug to the packaging area. At this time, the member should weigh the drug on a calibrated scale and provide an additional photograph. Scales should be calibrated by a professional company every year. I have previously worked with agencies, and their respective district attorney’s offices, to simplify the weighing of the drugs, which now allows officers to weigh drugs in their original containers.

Most agencies, due to imposing health risks, have purchased devices, such as a Tru-Narc, which allows for safe field scanning of drugs and other chemicals. Although scanning devices cannot be used on all drugs, and can be costly, I have developed policies with agencies that allow them to keep the drug in the unopened, original container where they can field test the drug with a scanning device and submit the weight as a gross gram weight (in the original packaging, not in the P&E packaging).

There are legal concerns associated with gross gram weight, so I would suggest working directly with your judicial district and explaining the health risks associated with this. I once was in a property area where an officer dumped a drug out to test it, which resulted in several members having to go to the hospital, including me. I have also heard of legal situations where property technicians hired attorneys because they were constantly surrounded by the smell of marijuana and inadequate ventilation.

Packaging
All drugs should be packaged in a clear, vapor-barrier bag that can be sealed with heat. In the past, it has been recommended that drugs be placed in envelopes. But with the growing concerns over drugs, such as fentanyl, and the strong odor of marijuana, I suggest that all drugs go into a vapor-barrier bag, which protects the health and safety of your members. SCS Northwest Property and Evidence Accreditation also agree with this.


All drugs – such as the fentanyl-laced pills shown here – should go into a vapor-barrier bag to protect the health and safety of personnel in the property room. Photo: DEA

Once the member places the drug into a sealed vapor-barrier bag and signs the seal, the item is turned into P&E. An exception to this could be a needle. If a needle needs to be collected, it must be placed into a sharps container before being placed into the vapor-barrier bag. If there are trace amounts of drugs in the needles, or the needles are unused, the collecting officer or CSI should photograph the items, and either the collecting member or P&E should discard the needles in a sharps container, since allowing them into the property room poses a great danger to staff.

Agencies should have clear protocols in a packaging manual that lists the steps to packaging both drugs and paraphernalia, to include step-by-step photographs for visual learners. Policies should also clearly dictate when and if a collecting officer or CSI should collect lighters, matches, vape pens, etc. Most agencies do not allow for the collection of lighters to simply show drug use, and most agencies have strict packaging requirements for items such as vape pens. For example, the battery to the vape pen should be removed before packaging.

Intake
When a property technician completes intake on a drug item, it is highly suggested to follow the “rule of two”. A property technician removes the item from an intake locker and, with a second member, completes the intake of the item. I suggest placing the vapor-barrier bag into a red, 9x12 envelope upon intake. This procedure was developed so that there is an extra visual component for identifying the item as a drug, but also for the drug to be carefully organized in a double-secured area. I have worked with agencies where drugs were temporarily misplaced because there was not a consistent packaging size, and the item would fall behind a cabinet or stick to another package.

Storage
The property technicians should place the vapor-barrier bag in the red envelope, provide a new gross gram weight (entire package), and then secure it in a double-locked area. Again, the red envelope is not required but adds a visual alert for high-priority items. I have also worked with agencies who have developed labels, using standard mailing labels that affix to the red envelope, indicating date, gross gram weight, and the signatures of the two members who are verifying. A double-locked area could be a locked file cabinet inside a secured property room or a dedicated drug room that is locked within the property room. No matter what type of space is used, P&E should ensure adequate air filtration and ventilation in that space. If you are using a lock or card access for a file cabinet or dedicated room, you must have strict policies in place for key control and access. Anyone entering these areas without P&E access must be accompanied by P&E and sign into the room using a log. These areas also need to have video surveillance and alarms that are tested often. Rarely, a drug—such as a marijuana edible—may need to be stored in a refrigerator. My advice for this is to reach out to your regional or state lab for the best guidance on storage in rare cases.

Removal
Anytime a drug item is requested for removal from the property room, either for transportation to the laboratory or courtroom proceedings, strict policies should also be in place for removal and notation of the chain of custody. The gross gram weight of the drug also needs to be verified by two members of P&E upon removal and return. If there is not a second member in P&E, a designated agency member can be approved by supervisors.

If the drug item is going to the laboratory, the property technician should audit items out to the laboratory monthly. There may be times where the laboratory will use the entire sample, or when a drug item is returned with a decreased weight. In a situation where a laboratory uses an entire sample or a large portion of a sample where the weight changes dramatically, the property technician should request documentation from the lab and upload that documentation to the case file before purging the item from the property management system. If the property technician is transporting the drug (commissioned or non-commissioned), it is recommended that a second sworn, commissioned member accompany them to the new location.

If a drug item is being requested by an officer or detective for court, the property technician should require a subpoena and place a copy of that subpoena into the case file. It is also recommended that the member removing the drug item provide a physical signature on a standardized agency form. The property technician should also make use of “ticklers”, if their property management system allows—that is, reminders to check in each day with the member removing the item to inquire about the anticipated return of the item. If your property unit does not have a property management system with this function, I would recommend using a reminder in your Outlook or Google calendar to remind staff that there is property under the control of P&E that is temporarily removed. Drug items need to be closely monitored when they are temporarily removed from the property room and, whether they are physically in the property room or temporarily in a secondary location, all drug items need to be included in a yearly inventory. I have worked with agencies that have decided on quarterly drug inventories, which further protect the property unit and the agency.

Purging
Drug destructions should occur at least annually. P&E needs to ensure that a strict case review process is in place before a final disposition is reached for a drug item to be purged. I have worked with agencies to develop case review processes and a case review packet, which is a packet of the required paperwork. The case review packet usually includes a cover page, a list of the evidence, and any supporting documentation. The cover page will include a fillable area for both internal and external approval. Internal approval will be given by investigations sergeants or other assigned personnel, and external approval will be granted by attorneys, usually the district attorney’s office. If you live in a state where marijuana is legal, I would encourage you to work with your attorney’s office for an “administrative kill” letter. This type of letter allows for certain types of evidence to be destroyed without external approval. For example, Colorado legalized marijuana but it is illegal to have on college campuses and illegal to possess if you are under the age of 21.


If you work in a state where marijuana is legal, you may be able to receive approval from the courts to expedite the removal of this evidence from the property room. Photo: DEA

I worked with a university police department that had a high number of marijuana items in their property room. These items were usually collected for municipal cases that had an 18-month statute. At that time, P&E would have to reach out to the municipal courts, on a case-by-case basis, and receive approval—which was time-consuming. I was able to get the municipal courts to approve that all marijuana related to municipal cases could be destroyed after two years without additional court approval. This allows for these types of drugs to effortlessly move out of the property room.

If you decide to adopt this procedure, an internal supervisor must approve each case as a second layer of approval. Then, P&E should draft a memorandum and send it through the chain of command to notify the chief of police of destruction, and then stage the drugs in a second, double-secured area to remove the final disposition items from active cases while they are pending destruction. Before destruction, two P&E technicians need to verify the gross gram weight, and then there should be a procedure in place to presumptively test a random selection of the drugs before destruction. If there are any suspected integrity issues, the chain of command needs to be notified. With previous agencies, we verified 10% of drugs on destruction day randomly using the Tru-Narc.

In my experience, many agencies do not know how to destroy drugs; as a result, their property rooms become filled with these items. My advice to agencies is to first reach out to neighboring agencies to inquire about how they are destroying drugs. If there is not a drug burn available, P&E should contact local trash facilities. We work with a trash facility here in Colorado that will take both marijuana and narcotics, and they have different procedures depending on the drug. Some drugs they bury and some drugs they mix in with other trash. Regardless of the destruction technique, P&E should be present and should record the destruction using a video camera or a smartphone. If it is medication, the agency should research pill “drop boxes” that are usually in a publicly accessible area, where the public can drop off unused medications and P&E can also use them for destruction. These drop boxes also usually are the responsibility of P&E. Regardless of purging technique, P&E should have a designated “destruction” case number where all documentation is uploaded for proof of compliance. This documentation includes the case-review packet, memorandum, and video.

I have enjoyed my time working with P&E units in agencies and giving property technicians the confidence and education they need to meet national best practices in P&E. I have often found that when agencies do not have high purge percentages or have a high number of drug items in their property room, it is not a reflection of the effort being put forward. Instead, the low purge rate is a result of a lack of training or poor training that was passed on from the last property technician, non-existent or outdated policies and procedures, or a lack of knowledge on how and where to destroy drugs.

There is also one consistent statement when purge rates are not where they should be which is, “We never hear back from the attorneys.” A great way to encourage collaboration between your P&E unit and attorneys is to begin a property accreditation process. There will be certain standards that are required for compliance, so that will encourage better collaboration between agencies, and it also allows for an open conversation to educate others on P&E processes. After all, the P&E unit, and the experts that work within, is one of the most important units in an agency, and one that could essentially make or break a case in the criminal justice system. We need to provide P&E units with the budget they need to meet national best practices and treat these experts, the property and evidence technicians, with the respect they deserve.


About the Author
Dr. Maria Pettolina has more than a decade of experience in the forensic field and has been involved in thousands of criminal investigations. She is court qualified as a forensic expert and holds a current certification as a Senior Crime Scene Analyst through the International Association of Identification. She is a national presenter and is a member of the OSAC CSI/CSIR Subcommittee. She has been published in forensic journals and has received more than 1,300 hours of specialized certificate training. She is currently a full-time lecturer at University of Northern Colorado where she teaches for the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department and is the program coordinator for the Criminal Investigations Certificate. She is also a consultant for a state agency in Colorado and assists agencies with national accreditation for property and evidence. Maria has a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice, a Master of Science in Forensic Medicine, and a Doctorate of Management in Higher Education.

 
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