Local police weigh in after state audit reveals lax standards in Utah evidence rooms

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ST. GEORGE — A number of law enforcement agencies in Utah lost or misplaced hundreds of items and seized property without keeping accurate records, according to a state audit released last week, which begs the question: How well are evidence rooms across Washington County being managed?

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The efficient and secure management of a property and evidence room can often make the difference between success and failure in a criminal case, and agencies are expected to adequately maintain inventory records that track and record each item from receipt to disposal.

But according to a 19-page report released May 1 by the Utah State Auditor’s Office, multiple issues were discovered in a number of troubled evidence rooms across the state, including sloppy record-keeping, nearly 200 items that were misplaced but later found, as well as a lack of controlled access to the rooms.

Auditors reviewed seven agencies between August 2018 and April 2019, checking each department’s controls, policies and procedures for compliance with state laws and industry standards, finding that all of them had items missing or misplaced from their inventory.

When comparing property records with the property actually on hand, auditors found many items marked as destroyed that were still in inventory, the report says, as well as items that were supposed to be in inventory but were actually destroyed.

Any issue in evidence management can have ramifications that are far-reaching, and not only can sloppy practices erode the public’s trust but can undermine the ability to try cases.

Under Utah law, agencies are required to hold seized property “in safe custody” and maintain “a detailed inventory of all property seized.” Securing, tracking and maintaining property ensures the integrity of any evidence and allows for the safe return of property to the rightful owners.

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The audit identified “human error and weak policies or procedures” as a major cause of items being mislabeled or misplaced, the highest number of those items involved narcotics and paraphernalia, and smaller departments fared far worse than larger departments.

Further, the number of mistakes increased with agencies that employ only part‐time technicians, or those that have no dedicated technician at all.

The review also found weak property storage controls and evidence rooms that lacked any surveillance equipment, while others had little or no control over who had access to the room.

Four of the sampled agencies had never conducted a complete inventory of their property room and a number of departments failed to perform internal inventories with any consistency, issues that were “recurrent throughout multiple agencies and result in an increased risk that property could be lost, stolen, or tampered with.”

State Auditor John Dougall said that “all law enforcement agencies across the state” review the report and then evaluate their evidence-handling policies and procedures, and make improvements in areas where weaknesses are identified.

St. George News reached out to agencies in the county to determine how evidence and property is stored, tracked and maintained.

Lt. Dave Crouse, of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency maintains nearly 6,500 pieces of evidence on any given day.

He said evidence management is a task the sheriff’s office takes very seriously, and is supported by myriad procedures and safeguards they have in place to avoid the type of issues outlined in the state’s audit.

The first involves security. To gain access to the room, he said, a card programmed with the proper credentials and a physical key is required, and if one is present without the other then access is denied. The software also tracks anyone attempting to gain access to the room, even if it is denied.

Crouse said the agency heat-seals all narcotics evidence in tamper-proof packaging, and sends evidence earmarked for destruction to an outside disposal company that is regulated and licensed.

Additionally, the agency has software that records every keystroke used in record-keeping, so if anything appears suspicious there is a detailed history of any changes made to the item’s record, showing the date, time and who made the change. The agency also conducts random internal audits quarterly.

A technician collecting and bagging evidence, location, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce, St. George News

There are more than 600 pieces of evidence and property maintained by an evidence technician at the Washington City Police Department, Chief Jason Williams said.

Any evidence collected goes into a secured locker, and from there it is cataloged and stored in the evidence facility where an internal audit is conducted annually. The facility itself is key-card entry only with three individuals who are authorized to gain access.

Hurricane Police Department maintains about 90 pieces of evidence at any given time and a physical key and a credentialed card are required to gain access to the property room, evidence technician Kellie Plumhoff said.

“The key is required with the card that leaves a digital footprint, so it is tracked,” she said. Records are checked and double-checked by her and a supervisor, and there is a complete record of the item showing when it was opened, tested or moved.

Security measures have also been enhanced after an evidence technician pleaded guilty in February 2018 to selling public property out of the evidence room, officer Ken Thompson said.

Read more: St. George man pleads guilty to selling evidence while working for police department

The department is also working toward becoming certified with the International Association for Property and Evidence Inc., the largest organization of its kind in the world as part of rebuilding public trust, he added.

In St. George, two full-time evidence technicians process, track and maintain approximately 40,000 pieces of evidence at a facility that runs “frequent spot audits and inspections,” in addition to performing a complete audit of “every piece of evidence” once a year, St. George Police Sgt. Sam Despain said.

The state auditor’s report was a recent topic of discussion and provided a chance for the agency to review current procedures and protocols to determine if any additional steps can be taken.

“St. George Police Department places a very high priority on evidence management, and as a result has implemented a regimen of strict procedures to maintain the integrity of all evidence and protect property,” Despain said.

When asked about the various security measures in place should an unauthorized individual gain access to the evidence room, he replied, “You wouldn’t gain access.”

Every agency interviewed said that all evidence is stored in tamper-proof packaging, all narcotic evidence is destroyed offsite using an outside agency and that a letter from the county attorney’s office is required before any item is scheduled to be destroyed.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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