A special CPP investigation into evidence rooms across WNC
Editor’s note: The following report includes the first and second installments of an investigation into how area sheriffs run their evidence rooms — an effort to both spotlight those operations and test responses to requests for public information. The first installment was published March 14; this version adds newly obtained documents and information from the sheriffs’ offices of Clay, Haywood, McDowell and Polk counties.
How law-enforcement agencies handle evidence can determine the outcome of criminal investigations and trials, impacting justice for both alleged criminals and crime victims. “Many times cases are dismissed due to improper evidence collection and storage, or the integrity of evidence being compromised because of improper documentation concerning chain of custody,” notes the Macon County Sheriff’s Office’s policy and procedure manual, which can be read below.
In the wake of the recent controversy about missing evidence at the Asheville Police Department — which erupted just a few years after the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office faced a similar scandal — an ongoing CPP investigation is documenting which WNC sheriffs are willing to share basic but potentially crucial information about their evidence-room operations.
In mid February, Carolina Public Press sent a survey and records requests to the sheriffs’ offices of WNC’s 18 westernmost counties. So far, 12 have responded to the requests, two say they’re working on it, and four have not responded at all.
One sheriff’s office, Henderson County’s, was especially responsive, providing a tour of its evidence facility and a first-hand look at how items are processed, stored, inventoried and audited.
See below for county-by-county responses and documents.
The survey posed questions about how each evidence room is staffed, managed and inspected. The records requests, issued under the auspices of North Carolina’s public-records law, asked for copies of policies for evidence handling and for all audits and/or inventories of evidence conducted in 2012.
The documents released so far show some of the unique challenges posed by this highly specialized law-enforcement work. Meticulous organization is required when taking in, storing and disposing of thousands of items of evidence, from the most mundane kinds of found or stolen property to the DNA samples for rape and homicide cases.
The records also reveal how much leeway sheriffs have in handling evidence, and how various departments have crafted different approaches. Some staff their evidence rooms with sworn officers, some with civilian employees, and some with a mix of the two. Rules for exactly who is authorized to access the evidence room often differ. Some evidence managers are required to do regular audits of their holdings to maintain professional accreditations, while others are not accredited and have no such requirement. Some keep most of their evidence records on paper, while most have transitioned, partially or fully, to a digital system.
Henderson County Deputy Arthur Ward, a former Highway Patrolman, has been his office’s main evidence custodian since 2005 and created the system currently in use there. His evidence room appears squeaky clean, and the estimated 2,500 pieces of evidence that line the shelves appear to be thoroughly organized. During a sample audit conducted for Carolina Public Press this week, he was able to quickly locate various items — baggies of marijuana, drug pipes, long guns, pistols, a dagger, a pair of brass knuckles, for example — from one deputy’s evidence-submission forms.
It wasn’t always so easy to do that. “When I took it over, it was so disorganized,” Ward said. “Some of the old property receipts didn’t have enough information on them, so I created the forms we use now. In this job, the more information you’ve got, the better.
“We also needed checks and balances,” Ward added. He’s instituted a number of safeguards so that, for example, no single officer can access the cage where drugs destined for destruction are locked up. The cage has two locks: He’s got one key, and a fellow officer has the other, so they have to access the area at the same time or not at all. “It’s about keeping an honest man honest,” he said.
“Your integrity is the big thing when cases go to court,” Ward said. “If you lose the honesty and integrity of the evidence, it’s hard to get it back.”
Which sheriffs share key evidence-related documents? Our investigation finds some answers, still seeks others.
Below is a county-by-county breakdown, in alphabetical order, of the answers and records we’ve received so far — and notes about the ones we haven’t received. We’ll continue to reiterate the requests, and later this month, we’ll publish an update with any additional records that are provided.
No response received from the office of Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye.
Lt. Randy Sorrells responded.
On staffing: “Our property section is staffed by two full-time employees. One sworn (officer) and one non-sworn.”
On audits/inspections: “Our audits are a surprise audit and are at a minimum of every quarter. We started this mid-year in 2012. Prior to that they were once a year. Our audit is conducted by the business officer who is not in the property room chain of command at all. We have a computerized property management software and one feature is an audit list. It will randomly select property records which we then physically audit.”
On records: See below for the office’s policy on “Evidence Collection and Property Control” and an “evidence room inventory accuracy summary.”
Chief Deputy Joe Wood responded.
On staffing: “Our evidence room is staffed with two employees. The Primary Evidence Custodian is a full-time sworn law enforcement officer who holds the rank of lieutenant and has over thirty years law enforcement experience. The Secondary Evidence Custodian is a part-time, non-sworn employee who is a retired law enforcement officer.”
On audits/inspections: “Our Evidence room is inventoried once a year by the Primary and Secondary Evidence Custodians.”
On records: See below for the office’s “Standard Evidence Operating Procedure” document and a memo to Sheriff Keith Lovin on a “2012 Evidence and Seized Property Inventory.”
Deputy Todd Wingate responded.
On staffing: “I am the assigned Property Officer as well as an Investigator.”
On audits/inspections: “Regarding the request for audits/inspections, I do not have any of that material in digital format at this time. Copies can be made available but it will require a considerable effort of both manpower and material as each case has a separate inventory which has been filed individually within the completed record. Since our last inventory we have brought online supporting software that will not only generate this information more efficiently but is interactive with other software utilized by the department as well. As our inventory increases and/or decreases and files are added to the database our ability to provide these records will be much less time consuming and more cost effective.”
On records: See the office’s “Evidence Management” policy document below.
No response received from the office of Graham County Sheriff Mickey Anderson.
Detective Bruce Warren responded.
On staffing: An evidence-inspection report noted that as of April 2012, one detective was responsible for evidence oversight and two other detectives served as evidence technicians.
On audits/inspections: Unannounced partial inspections of evidence management and inventory were conducted in July 2011 and in April 2012. The inspections were conducted by R.C. “Toby” Hayes, a former special agent in charge of the State Bureau of Investigation’s Western District.
On records: See the document below, which includes the office’s policy on “Evidence: Collection, Handling, Processing, Storage and Disposition” and Hayes’ reports on his surprise inspection.
Capt. Frank Stout responded.
On staffing: “We have a full-time, retired N.C. State Trooper employed as our evidence technician. He is a sworn Deputy Sheriff with our agency. His backup consists of two sworn officers from our Professional Standards/Career Development Division, who assist with evidentiary inspections, evidence destruction (pursuant to court order), and evidence management in his absence.”
On audits/inspections: “Our new policy, enacted August 2012, requires an annual audit by the evidence technician and Captain of Professional Standards/Career Development. An annual audit consists of auditing every item of evidence held by our agency by verifying its presence in our evidence management section and reviewing records to determine that proper procedure has been followed in submission and preservation. We are currently in the process of computerizing and bar-coding our inventory in an effort to sync it with our records management system allowing for timely electronic inventories. I have met with our County IT department to help us with software upgrades to streamline our efficiency in conducting audits, inventories and spot checks.”
On records: See below for the office’s “Evidence and Property Management” policies.
Regarding records of evidence audits in 2012, Stout wrote: “A complete audit was conducted in May of 2012. Every evidence submission form in each officer’s file was matched with the evidence item in the secured facility. All items were present and accounted for. Each folder was then initialed and dated by the evidence technician, who conducted the audit. … (W)e are trying to streamline and put audits and inspections in place electronically, as a more efficient system. The process we are looking to implement would allow for spot audits of money, drugs, and other high value items at any time without having to hand pull every piece of evidence.”
Maj. Shannon Queen wrote to say that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office will respond. No additional information received.
Capt. Shanon Smith responded.
On staffing: “We do not have a full-time evidence room custodian. The Captain of Detectives is the evidence room records custodian. Each Detective and Shift Lieutenant are custodians of their assigned evidence cage and its contents.”
On audits/inspections: “A complete inventory of each locker is conducted bi-annually by visibly inspecting each item of evidence/property. This inventory is conducted by the Captain of Detectives along with the custodian of the cage being inventoried. The most recent inventory was completed in 2011.”
On records: See below for the office’s “Evidence Collection and Control” policy. “We are presently undergoing a review and amendment of this policy and procedure,” Smith noted.
Brian Welch, staff attorney for the sheriff’s office, responded.
On staffing: No answer provided.
On audits/inspections: “No audits since 2010. Our long-time evidence custodian retired last year and we are in the middle of reviewing/revising the current policy.”
On records: See below the “Macon County Sheriff’s Office Policy and Procedure Manual” on “Handling of Evidence.”
Deputy Michael Garrison responded on March 22 and said he will work to fulfill the request.
Mitchell County Sheriff Donald Street wrote to say that he had forwarded the survey and records request to his chief deputy. No additional information received.
Lt. Brett Hooper responded.
On staffing: “Polk County Sheriff’s Office staffs one evidence room employee who also serves as Criminal Investigations Division supervisor. This is a sworn officer.”
On audits/inspections: “In the past our room has been inventoried in whole, but will soon be inventoried in random selection of 10 percent of entire holdings. Example: If we had 800 pieces of evidence I would go down the list and every tenth item I would inventory.”
On records: “We have no documentation on any audits or inventories done for the year 2012.” Hooper did not provide any documents on evidence management policies or procedures.
The office of Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis did not respond to the survey, but County Attorney Richard Williams did respond on the to the records request on the sheriff’s behalf.
Williams said that “there are no records” regarding audits or inspections of the evidence room in 2012, and provided the below documents on policies for “Evidence and Property Management” and the “Pharmaceutical Drug Disposal Program.”
No response from the office of Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran.
Lt. John Nicholson responded.
On staffing: “Our evidence room is not staffed with a full-time person solely devoted to evidence room management. I am the current evidence room custodian. I have held the duty of managing the evidence room since 1991 and this has been a continuing part of my official duties since I first accepted the assignment. I am the only person authorized at this time by Sheriff (David) Mahoney to manage evidence/property for this agency and I do on occasion accept and manage evidence for other agencies such as the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation and various federal agencies when applicable.”
On audits/inspections: “I currently inventory and audit items on a day-to-day basis. In terms of items seized that amount to a misdemeanor charge, I usually select a particular officer’s evidence items and with those items, I verify the person(s) associated with the evidence and verify the items possessed. I make inquiries into the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and verify the case status to determine if the case has been disposed of or is currently on the judicial docket. If the case is disposed and the appeal period has expired, the item(s) are placed in a bag or box labeled with the associated officer’s name to be disposed of in the proper manner at a later date. For these audit and/or inventories, I use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to collect and document my progress and information.
“We are currently in the process of developing and implementing a computerized method of audits and inventories. In this method, the desired effect will result in being able to conduct scheduled audits/inventories and periodic ‘spot’ audits/inventories by using the existing records management system. For example, a supervisory or administrative staff member would be allowed to select a certain percentage of the items maintained in the evidence room and those items would have to be presented to the appropriate person conducting the audit for verification. This method could also be utilized in a ‘spot’ audit manner. Until the computerized method can be implemented, I will use the same methods as I have discussed above.”
On records: See below for the office’s “Evidence and Property” policy, a “Receipt for Evidence and/or Property” form, and excerpts of the office’s policies for the seizure, storage and release of weapons.
Capt. Dee Dee Rominger responded.
On staffing: “The evidence room is staffed by two sworn officers.”
On audits/inspections: “Audit or inventory of the evidence room holdings is conducted in whole when a new sheriff is elected and takes office. Audit or inventory of the evidence room holdings is conducted in part as necessary according to orders of destruction received by the court. The audits and inventories are conducted by the two sworn officers assigned to working the evidence room.”
On records: “The Watauga County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of adopting a new policy and procedure manual which will include evidence management. This manual is still being updated and a copy is not available at this time. No audit was conducted during calendar year 2012.”
Sheriff Gary Banks responded.
On staffing: “The Yancey County Sheriff’s Office is comprised of both sworn and civilian personal; however the evidence room can (be) accessed only by sworn deputy sheriffs. … The evidence room is secured by two locks, which require two different keys. Supervisors to include the Sheriff and the three lieutenants hold keys to only one of the locks with deputies holding the keys to the other. The system restricts any individual from accessing the evidence room alone and restricts subordinates from accessing without a supervisor. Within the evidence room is a numbered and lettered shelving system, where evidence is stored. The evidence room also houses a locker system, which consists of individual lockers. The individual lockers are assigned to individual deputies who hold a key for the lock that secures them. The lockers are primarily used for evidence that has been analyzed and returned by the State Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab.”
On audits/inventories: “The evidence room is inventoried two to four times a year in whole. The inventory is conducted by a lieutenant, who is assisted by a deputy.”
On records: Banks provided the below summary of an inventory conducted in November 2012.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the response from Maj. Shannon Queen. His response was for Jackson County.
This collection is very telling. It shows how seriously some departments take this issue. It also makes one wonder whether the other departments are too understaffed, too sloppy, or too arrogant to respond to this very straightforward request. Either way, they just gave defense attorneys in their respective counties something to consider.