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Audit finds problems with evidence handling at Pinal County Sheriff's Office

BYLINE: Corey Rangel
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Pinal County, AZ

2011-07-31_Audit finds problems with evidence handling_01
An independent audit raises some alarming concerns within the Pinal County Sheriff's Property and Evidence Unit which, according to the report, could have an impact on past, present, and future cases.

Even Sheriff Paul Babeu admits there are some problems.

“The potential liability here is grave. We have some serious issues here and we don't want to conceal it from you and we're addressing it in quick speed,” Babeu told ABC15.

The audit, done by California-based Evidence Control Systems Inc., highlights problems with the way evidence is or has been handled, processed, and stored.

The report raises several specific issues regarding how evidence is monitored and tracked and states "there could be a substantial number of items missing but it will never be determined unless someone is looking for a specific item and it cannot be found."

At the time of the audit, there were more than 200 items in the "Unable To Locate" file including guns, drugs, money, and biological evidence. The last time the file was examined by a supervisor was August 2010, the report found.

ECS made the recommendation that management should review the current missing items and determine if any of them "should require an internal investigation, further search, or criminal investigation."

The audit found several glaring problems at storage facilities where evidence is being kept.

When auditors visited a long-term storage facility in Florence that typically holds evidence in older cases, the report noted, "According to Property and Evidence Unit personnel, the facility has been broken into on a number of occasions which could jeopardize the evidence in court proceedings. Secondly, it is believed that there could be old homicide evidence still being stored in the building."

While auditors estimated 90 percent of the items at the facility could be purged, it recommended "all efforts be made to abandon this facility as quickly as possible. In the event that there is another break-in and critical evidence is stolen, the department will be critiqued by the community and criticized by the newspaper."

At a storage area in Casa Grande, ECS found other potential problems that could have an impact on cases noting: "It is a very good likelihood that deputies are entering the room that has non-secured evidence that could easily be removed or tampered with or challenged in court."

According to the audit, the evidence area is in an old jail cell and "there is no record of who is entering the cell to the un-secured evidence."

The audit notes the cell violates all accepted standards and practices and states, "It is obvious the first line supervisors assigned to this station are not concerned with evidence security of the chain of custody. All that a defense attorney would have to ask is "could someone have tampered with this evidence."

“Cases could be compromised and that's a problem. We're not in the business of being the problem in a case with the evidence not being properly handled, safeguarded or processed,” said Babeu.

The 300-page report finds other potential causes for concern regarding how evidence is documented and tracked.

"At the present time if an investigating deputy/case officer signs out evidence for investigative purposes he/she has no requirement to return the evidence. The evidence can in fact stay in the possession of the deputy indefinitely," according to the audit.

It went on to note, "Many law enforcement agencies have had scandals or lost criminal cases wherein the investigators/case deputies have signed out evidence 'for investigative purposes' and the evidence has either never been returned or the evidence was substituted in the package returned."

Similarly, it also found, "Any time a Deputy of investigating officers signs out an item of evidence for 'investigative need,' there is never any type of follow-up to ascertain the status of the evidence.

The audit recommended the sheriff's office implement a policy that requires routine monitoring of evidence that is removed from the Property and Evidence Unit including any evidence removed for investigative purposes.

The audit goes on to state, "Items not returned to the Property Room or properly accounted for will eventually make headlines or at least be responsible for losing a case."

In addition, ECS questioned how sexual assault kits are stored and processed.

It found only about 5 percent of the sexual assault kits ever go to the Crime Lab and said, "It is unclear why more sexual assault kits and other evidence are not being sent to the Crime Lab for analysis in hopes of identifying a perpetrator or linkage to other crimes."

The auditors even suggested, "There is a very good likelihood that in a number of the cases being stored in the Property Room the investigator has retired or transferred to another unit and the case has been forgotten."

“It's pretty alarming when you see that, when you see evidence that, for years, has not been submitted for DNA testing when it comes to sexual assaults, when it comes to possible homicide and murder cases,” said Babeu.

Despite the problems, Babeu tells ABC15 he has met with the Pinal County Attorney and said they’re not aware of any cases that have been compromised.

Babeu said many of the issues are a result of mismanagement by previous administrations dating back 20 years and said the proof is in the storage rooms.

“Clearly we have a storage problem with evidence,” said Babeu as he stood next to boxes piled taller than him.

Evidence rooms are so full, boxes are stacked to the ceiling with leftovers spilled out onto the floor. Some items date back to the 1970s.

At least half of it can be tossed out but the sheriff tells ABC15 he doesn't have the staff to do it because they're focusing on properly processing the new evidence coming in.

So many items need to be purged the audit found it would take someone 26 years to reduce the inventory by half.

“This is not normal. This does not meet any standards. The audit even talks about this. To properly catalog and store all this -- this is not the way you do business," he said.

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