The chain of custody describes the sequence of finding, handling, packaging, and moving evidence. Police officers must document and protect each piece of evidence during an investigation and court case to make sure nothing is lost, stolen, or altered. Simply, the chain is custody is the paper trail for all the evidence.
If something goes wrong in the chain of custody in VA, then the reliability of the evidence is compromised. An experienced Virginia defense attorney will review the chain of evidence carefully to look for mistakes. We won’t let a prosecutor use compromised evidence against you without a fight.
If you think the police mishandled evidence in your case, call Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico at (540) 343-9349, and schedule your free initial consultation. You should have a knowledgeable and experienced Roanoke defense attorney on your side.
Why Do Mistakes in the Chain of Custody Matter?
The chain of evidence in VA protects evidence from when the police find it to when your defense attorney or the prosecutor wants to use it at trial. The evidence should be the original item in the same condition as when investigators found it. (Or the test results should be based on testing the original evidence.) Otherwise, it can’t reliably offer the information the prosecutor claims it does.
You should know who had control over each piece of evidence at any time. The police should be able to prove evidence was properly obtained, transferred, and stored securely at all times. You need to be confident that no one could have altered it in some way.
The police might claim to have found a handgun under the driver’s seat of your car. If the police didn’t properly seal the firearm in a package, or police and lab technicians didn’t handle it carefully with gloves, then someone else’s fingerprints will end up on it. The fingerprints that were there could also become smudged or removed.
In addition, the police might confiscate your computer and other devices to review your electronic communications. But if these devices and messages aren’t stored or secured properly, other people could access them, either physically or virtually.
Mistakes in the chain of custody raises questions whether the evidence was changed—intentionally or unintentionally. Errors mean you can’t trust the evidence in court.
Possible Flaws in the Chain of Custody
A lot can go wrong during the collection, storage, transfer, and testing of evidence during a criminal investigation.
Potential mistakes during the chain of custody include:
- Contaminated crime scenes: The police and other investigators might mishandle a crime scene or specific types of evidence. They might pick up and handle items without gloves. They might gather biological evidence in non-sterile equipment.
- Mislabeled evidence: The police might mislabel a piece of evidence regarding what it is, where and when they found it, and which case it belongs to.
- Misplaced or lost evidence: Evidence should always be in a specific department or person’s custody. If evidence is misplaced, there may be minutes, hours, or days in which no one can account for who had control over and access to it.
- Failure to book evidence: Police officers have to document each piece of evidence found during an investigation. Not formally documenting the evidence means something important to your defense might be lost or mishandled.
- Contamination: Gloves and sterile containers are always necessary to handle evidence. Investigators should not alter the evidence by adding fingerprints to an item or sweating on an object with a biological sample.
- Improper storage: How certain evidence is stored is critical. For example, biological or other DNA evidence might need to be stored at a certain temperature. Becoming too hot will degrade the evidence.
- Mailing errors: Substances and objects often have to be shipped from one location to another for testing. If an office or administrator mislabels a package containing evidence, it could be shipped to a third party or unknown location and straight into the hands of someone who can’t maintain the chain of custody and could destroy, lose, or contaminate the evidence.
How a Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help
It’s hard to find flaws in the VA chain of evidence without an attorney. At Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico, we will demand the records for each piece of evidence to look for any mistakes in procedure or opportunities for mishandling, contamination, or tampering.
If we identify one or more mistakes in the chain of evidence, we’ll use this to ask the judge to throw that evidence out. Depending on the importance of that evidence, this might weaken the prosecutor’s case or give us an opening to file a motion to dismiss.