A review of evidence storage in Utah’s district and juvenile courts, released by the state Auditor’s Office last Wednesday, found a number of problems, including inadequate evidence management and insufficient controls on sensitive or valuable evidence like firearms and drugs.
“The Court System’s current tools and evidence management practices are not adequate to implement the needed level of evidence security,” said State Auditor John Dougall. “Inadequate oversight of evidence increases the risk that evidence could be lost, stolen, damaged, or tampered with.”
Utah statute allows law enforcement officers to take possession of property in different ways, including seizing property related to a crime, such as money, firearms or drug paraphernalia. To ensure the evidence is secure, the Utah Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts are required to establish appropriate management controls and procedures, which include documenting and auditing evidence inventory, the audit report said.
In the audit, six unidentified district courts and three juvenile courts were selected. The auditor’s office reviewed controls, best practices, and procedures for compliance with state code.
The audit discovered problems out of the gate when it attempted to review the number of missing items by completing an inventory of the items held by the various courts.
“However, due to the inadequacy of the courts’ evidence management practices, we were unable to conduct an inventory,” the audit report said.
Best practices from the International Association for Property and Evidence include having an inventory conducted annually or whenever there is a change in evidence room personnel.
“None of the clerks or exhibit managers we interviewed had knowledge of an evidence inventory, a self-audit, or an independent audit ever being performed,” the state auditor’s report said.
Some court clerks and exhibit managers used features of their case management systems to record an evidentiary item when it was admitted during a court hearing, as well as indicate where it’s being stored and its final disposition, the audit said. The system doesn’t allow the creation of an inventory list, however, so the clerks and exhibit managers don’t know what items should be in the evidence room.
Other exhibit managers used handwritten logs, notes or index cards to help document, track and locate evidence. The audit described these methods as tedious to search, which introduce additional human error and can easily be lost or destroyed.
Each clerk seemed to have their own method of managing evidence, the audit said.
To deal with the issues, the audit recommended using modern evidence management systems instead of handwritten methods, implementing management practices to allow clerks and exhibit managers to create inventory lists, require regular inventories of evidence and annual audits, and ensure court supervisors regularly inspect the evidence function.
The audit also discovered either weak or lacking controls over evidence storage. None of the sampled courts maintained an access log for the evidence storage rooms, while five didn’t have multiple requirements to enter the room, such as a personnel card, biometric identification or hard key.
Three of the courts allowed other people beside the exhibit manager and supervisor to access the evidence room. Four of the rooms had only a hard key for access, with no trail that could be audited.
None of the courts reviewed in the audit had an alarm system for their evidence room, while only two had cameras near the door to the evidence room, according to the audit report.
One of the evidence rooms had water leaking into it, which was dampening the carpet. This issue persisted when auditors returned 16 weeks later.
The audit report recommended requiring anyone who is not the exhibit manager or supervisor to sign and date an access log before entering the evidence room, supervisors should review access logs and keycard access at least monthly, and cameras and perimeter alarms should be installed.
Auditors also found issues with inadequate documentation for the disposal of vulnerable evidence, including one case in which a previous exhibit manager “disposed of ‘a lot of firearms and narcotics’ by returning them to different police agencies by ‘loading a truck full of weapons and then returning them to the agencies.’”
In a letter attached to the released audit, State Court Administrator Judge Mary T. Noonan said steps are already being taken to address some of the issues from the audit report, including the creation of a baseline inventory in all district and juvenile courts, drafting detailed evidence and inventory policies, and generating a plan to train court clerks and evidence managers on how to effectively apply the evidence and inventory policies and procedures.