Thursday, 11 February 2016

Chain Of Custody Inefficiency Secures Cocaine Dealer Freedom Caught By Undercover Agent

How would you feel, if after working at a new job for a whole month, giving all your energy, time  and intellect to it, you recieve the shock of your life...No pay!
Your boss calls you and says “sorry John, your work efficiency was very low. We cannot pay you this month. I hope you step up next month!”. What will you do?  It would take more than the 26 letters in the English alphabets to express yourself(that's if verbal expression is your preferred option)
Though not the same case, it was of similar fate that some police officers suffered from that forms the basis of this post.

An undercover agent in October 2006, bought cracked cocaine from an illegal controlled-drug dealer who didn’t know that he was selling the controlled substance to a law enforcement agent. After the sale, the agent delivered the drug to two other police officers who had 'wired' him before the sale took place. One of those officers labelled the evidence and transported it to the crime lab for analysis.

A Forensic expert analysed it and confirmed it was cocaine. She (the expert) repackaged the evidence and returned it to the prosecutors. The drug dealer was arrested and prosecuted. You would think the evidence against him was ‘solid’ and enough to put him into prison . Yes. A jury sentenced him to 15 years in prison. BUT...

That sentenced was reversed by an appeal court. Reason? The  chain-of-custody of that evidence(which was the prosecution's exhibit 1) was insufficient to be admissible.
The Court of Appeals stated that the officer that took the evidence to the lab and the forensic expert that handled and analysed the ‘cocaine evidence’ only acted as ‘custodians of the evidence’ but neither of them was directly linked to the other by testimony or documentary evidence.

In other words, the names of both the expert and police officer  and any other who might have handled the evidence were not documented. There  was no sufficient details presented about how the evidence was handled while in the police officer’s possession or once it was delivered at the police division.

Any body could have handled it. How sure are we that someone has not tampered with the evidence? Is there any chance or possibility that anybody could have handled the evidence in the course of transit, storage or analysis? Are you 100% sure? These are questions  brilliant lawyers will always probe at the opposing legal team to discredit their 'hard earned' evidence. Once you admit the tinniest of chance....hmm.

Cocaine dealer walks free...and possibly goes back to his business(maybe more careful so that he doesn’t sell cocaine to  undercover agents again). Wow!
The lawyer that handled his case must have been very good. He must have been very conversant with chain-of-custody rules and procedures about how forensic evidence should be handled. Remember the OJ Simpson case?
So what could have prevented this bad guy from going scot free?

The importance of evidence integrity in legal matters can never be over emphasised.
It shows that no matter how ‘valid’ and ‘heavy’ an evidence can be with regards to a case, if its integrity and accountability by handlers  is not  properly ensured - -  that evidence can be discredited. Case lost!

Therefore, a system or application that will improve forensic evidence tracking, storage and retrieval processes, strenthen the chain-of-custody of evidence, provide an efficient logging system that will meet legal requirements is highly needed.

One of such system is the use of barcoding. A barcode is an optical machine-readable representation of data about an object. According to NIST, forensic science laboratories and law enforcement agencies have increasingly used barcodes to track and manage forensic evidence, firearms, and personnel.

This application is a form of automated identification technology (AIT) which employs and  enables the capture, collection, and transfer of data to automatically identify objects and enter data about them directly into computer systems with little to no human involvement.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is another application that is being expolited as a viable option.

Basically, AIT technology uses program softwares, specially designed handheld devices, barcode scanners and RFID/barcode labels to function properly. This would have a computer system that receives the read items from the tags or labels on the forensic evidences recovered. The signals read from the tags or labels by either the barcode scanners or RFID transitters are sent to the computer’s database. Every Barcode/RFID enabled item can be tracked and details retrieved with ease.

Collection and Labelling of evidence
The process of collecting a list of evidence and registering each of them manually is time consuming. One cannot eliminate transcription errors aside forgetting to include important but latent details. Crime scene collection kits can be pre-labelled with RFID tags which are read by handheld devices programmed to collect basic crime scene information. It saves time, eliminates errors and improves security of the evidence which can be tracked.

Chain-of-custody management
The information obtained is now sent to security agency’s system automatically. Normally, the evidence would have had to be transported over long distances thereby creating the risk of tampering or destruction. Thus, an electronic chain-of-custody is created which begins from the point of collection at the crime scene. This provides a tracking system via the lab up to the court room.

Storage/Retrieval of evidence
An RFID-enabled storage facility  can be designed such that the evidence(which is RFID/Barcode tagged) can easily be retrieved. Information such as the time, persons surrendering and recieving, details such as case numbers, dates and location are electronically recorded in the agency's database.

When a lab scans a barcode label, extensive case and chain-of-custody data is quickly and securely transferred directly to the lab’s information database. A new barcode label is then printed for the lab’s evidence records. A submission receipt barcode can be printed to confirm transfer to the lab and to preserve chain-of-custody integrity. It ensures that forensic experts or laboratory technicians have no business with typing case details. This eliminates human error and saves on productivity.

This 90,000 square foot laboratory uses state-of-the art RFID technology in handling over 35,000 pieces of evidence every year(download pdf)
It is hoped that the use of Automated Identification  Technology (AIT) such as Barcoding and RFID  will ensure an effective system that involves tracking, storage, retention, retrieval, and access control mechanisms thereby improving efficiency in forensic evidence management.

What a pity that he(the cocaine dealer) was let free just because some persons did not follow standard chain-of-custody procedure. I feel for those officers. This is someone you caught red handed!
Do you think the cocaine dealer would have been set free if a RFID/Barcode system was used for that exhibit? What do you think?