Burdened by proof;

Fresno Bee (California), FINAL EDITION
BYLINE: Brad Branan The Fresno Bee
SECTION: MAIN NEWS; Pg. A1

February 25, 2007 Sunday

2007-02-25_L-N_Burdened by proof;


Fresno County,

The Fresno County Sheriff's Department has evidence all over the county that can't be thrown out in case it's needed in court someday. A task force is urging the city and county to merge their storage.

Among the relics of crimes committed in Fresno County are rakes and other tools, a graffiti-covered boom box, a mounted rubber glove with a middle finger that rises by remote control.

An orange Chevrolet pickup collects rust, unused since a murderer drove it 40 years ago.

Half a million objects that the Fresno County Sheriff's Department might one day need for investigations or prosecutions collect dust in places spread across the county. Some are at department headquarters. Some are at a county warehouse and lot. About 75% of the stuff is kept in various Derrel's Mini Storage units.

If any item is misplaced, critics say, it could hamper a criminal case. But as a task force pushes for the county to consolidate its evidence storage with the Fresno Police Department to reduce the chances of things getting lost, Sheriff's Department officials say their system is just fine the way it is.

"It's not the prettiest setup," said Capt. Rick Hill. "But it's efficient, and it works."

And it's less expensive than a joint operation, sheriff's officials say.

Under a proposal being pushed by a task force of Police and Sheriff's Department representatives, City Council Member Brian Calhoun and others, personnel for a joint storage plan operated by Fresno police would cost an estimated $540,000 a year. The costs of a new storage building haven't been determined.

Under the plan, the Sheriff's Department would pay about one-third of the cost, while the Police Department would pick up the rest.

A desire to save personnel costs is the reason the Sheriff's Department stores about five times as much evidence as Fresno police, Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie said.

Before evidence can be destroyed, county employees must research whether the case is completed, which requires calls to investigators, courts and prosecutors. The Sheriff's Department would rather spend $40,000 a year on holding evidence in storage than an estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars for additional employees to process evidence, Gattie said.

The Sheriff's Department has two employees to process evidence; the Police Department has nine. The task force estimated that the Sheriff's Department spends about $150,000 a year for its two technicians, while the Police Department spends about $450,000 a year to run its property room.

Joseph Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence in Burbank, said the Sheriff's Department is keeping "too much" in about 25 Derrel's Mini Storage units in various locations.

Although it's not unusual for police departments to use commercial storage for evidence, Latta advises them to "put it under one roof." "Losing a major case is the biggest risk" if evidence is lost or stolen, he said.

Increased use of DNA in older cases has created a greater need for evidence storage, but departments often fail to get rid of other kinds of evidence that no longer is needed, he said. "You want someone watching it every day," Latta said. "There are burglaries of property rooms all across the country."

In general, Latta said, agencies should get rid of evidence once a case has been fully adjudicated.

The Fresno Police Department hired Latta, a former police lieutenant from Burbank, to examine its evidence handling after explosives were stolen from a police bunker near Auberry in December 1999. The department lost 125 pounds of dynamite and the military explosive C4 and 75 pounds of gunpowder. City leaders considered canceling New Year's Eve celebrations amid concerns that the materials might be used in an attack on a large gathering.

In recent years, police chiefs in Albuquerque, N.M., and Colorado Springs, Colo., have resigned in the wake of scandals over lost or stolen evidence.

"How many times do you have to move evidence before you lose something?" said Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case, who is on the task force on property and evidence storage. "We run the risk of losing evidence."

Evidence must be moved when it needs to be reviewed by prosecutors or investigators. The Sheriff's Department has a paper-based system for keeping track of where things are kept but plans to switch to a computerized system.

The Fresno Chamber of Commerce, in what it said was a community leadership role, assembled the task force and other committees to examine how law-enforcement services could be consolidated in the county. In January, the task force recommended that the Sheriff's Department turn over its property and evidence storage to the Fresno Police Department.

The task force expects to meet in the next month to decide how to get the plan backed by other elected officials and funded.

Having a single storage place would "reduce movement of property and evidence, reducing exposure to loss which could result in major liability issues," the task force reported.

The Sheriff's Department hasn't opposed the plan but is concerned about new costs. And Gattie said the county's system hasn't resulted in the loss of evidence "of any significance" during his 35 years with the department.

But Fresno police Sgt. Greg Noll, who is responsible for the city's property and evidence, said the joint system would improve evidence handling.

"Any time you put evidence in one place, you're talking about better security," Noll said.

The Sheriff's Department keeps more than 5,000 guns as evidence in cargo containers. Guns and drugs receive closer attention so that they can be disposed of more quickly than other types of evidence, Gattie said.

Evidence from homicide cases is kept the longest because there is no time limit on charging someone and because murderers often appeal their convictions, Hill said. In a county building filled with boxes of evidence from homicide cases, the earliest dates back to 1952.

The orange pickup kept in a fenced county lot is an example of how evidence can just keep accumulating.

The Sheriff's Department has tried to get rid of the old Chevrolet that has been in its possession for more than three decades, but the Fresno County District Attorney's Office won't release the truck, Hill said. The murderer who drove it still is appealing his case.

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6679.

GRAPHICS:

Guns kept by the Fresno County Sheriff's Department as evidence in crimes sit awaiting destruction in storage at a county facility. A task force is pushing for the county to consolidate its evidence storage with the city.

PHOTOS BY JOHN WALKER/THE FRESNO BEE Above: Fresno County sheriff's Capt. Rick Hill shows boxes of evidence kept in storage at a county facility, all related to homicide cases.

Top: A 1970s-era pickup, involved in a homicide, is kept as evidence in a county wrecking yard. The Sheriff's Department stores 500,000 such objects.

PHOTOS BY JOHN WALKER/THE FRESNO BEE Fresno County sheriff's Capt. Rick Hill looks over evidence kept in storage in a commercial facility. He said the evidence is related to a variety of cases, including homicides, narcotics, assaults and burglaries.

Fresno County sheriff's deputy Chris Curtice looks over an AK-47 assault rifle, among thousands of firearms booked as evidence and in storage at the Sheriff's Department headquarters.

Fresno County sheriff's Capt. Rick Hill wades through piles of evidence, including a stolen phone booth, kept in storage at a commercial storage facility.

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