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Cleaning up the missing evidence mess

Asheville, NC

The audit of the Asheville Police Department evidence room shows what everyone had feared: A lot of evidence is missing, especially drugs. There is no substitute for thorough, strict safeguards to avert a repetition.

Up to 200 evidence parcels could be missing drugs, District Attorney Ron Moore said Tuesday after receiving the final report on an audit done by an outside firm. Moore said he could not determine whether any pending court cases may be compromised.

Other problems were a poor cataloging system and mountains of clutter. “They found a lot of items that had been lying around for a long time,” Moore said. “Stuff has to go out the door as cases are dealt with.”

Most of the drugs believed missing were from cases already resolved and were designated for the “burn pile.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that those drugs probably wound up on the illicit market.

The inquiry began nearly a year ago, after Moore learned that longtime evidence and property manager William Lee Smith had resigned after being suspended. After Moore’s request, a sample audit was begun.

On April 1, Moore and a defense attorney found that 397 oxycodone tablets were missing. Four days later Moore ordered the evidence room sealed and ordered a full, independent audit. He was critical of police for not doing a full audit after his earlier request and for not telling him about early results.

Police Chief Bill Hogan defended his actions, saying that the department was following guidelines by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. Later in April the chief announced his retirement, effective in May.

Now that the full audit is completed, the city’s old evidence room can be reopened so prosecutors can pursue cases involving evidence stored there. A new room had been opened to handle evidence collected since the old room was sealed.

This is not the first time Buncombe County has had an evidence room scandal. An audit conducted after Van Duncan became sheriff in 2007 uncovered massive problems during the 12-year tenure of Bobby Medford. Auditors could not account for 223 handguns, 114 rifles and drugs listed on 1,318 entry sheets. Rape kits and evidence bags had been mishandled.

Other major scandals in recent years have occurred in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, New Mexico and Louisiana. A million dollars in drugs was missing in Daytona Beach, Fla., and nearly $3 million in Nashville.

Evidence rooms contain a lot of items that are of value both to the prosecutor’s case and in their own right. Big money means big temptation. Rigid controls are necessary to make sure no one gives into temptation or simply becomes sloppy in procedures.

Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson said the city wants to work with Moore and the auditors “to understand what the findings are and what the city needs to do moving forward to address the concerns. We’re committed to do whatever we need to do to get the processes and standards where they need to be.”

There are a lot of ideas out there. The property and evidence management guide for California Police Officers Standards and Training has exhaustive recommendations, including both annual and surprise audits.

The manual says audits should be conducted by people “who are not routinely or directly connected with the control of property and evidence.”

An evidence room scandal in Houston, a city with a strong-mayor form of government, resulted in overwhelming referendum approval in 2004 for a measure to allow the elected city controller to audit all departments.

Asheville does not have to reinvent the wheel, merely see that it rolls properly.

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International Association for Property and Evidence
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