Expert: Utah case shows drugs a problem in police evidence rooms

The internal investigation also found that the evidence room was in disarray and dozens of criminal cases may be jeopardized because of stolen or compromised evidence.

May 22, 2018

OGDEN (AP) — Evidence room problems illustrated by the case of a Utah technician who was fired after being found high on methamphetamine at work are all too common, according to a national police expert.

Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence, told the Standard-Examiner on Sunday that methamphetamine and pills have been a serious problem in evidence rooms around the country over the last three to four years.

"What you are dealing with is not unusual," Latta said to the newspaper in Ogden. "It's every day. There are many good reasons for it, and when it gets exposed, everybody becomes aware of it."

The evidence room at the Weber County Sheriff's Office is undergoing an in-depth audit after a longtime evidence technician was fired in January. Authorities said she was found intoxicated on duty and acknowledged breaking into evidence bags containing methamphetamines and using the drugs for at least a year. Criminal charges have not been filed against her.

Her supervisor, Lt. Kevin Burns, retired under pressure after the allegations surfaced. An internal investigation found he had received multiple previous warnings that she showed classic signs of drug use. Burns, who is now running for Weber County Sheriff, has said he misread the situation and that the episode should not define his career.

The internal investigation also found that the evidence room was in disarray and dozens of criminal cases may be jeopardized because of stolen or compromised evidence. The county attorney is now investigating.

Property-room issues are often overlooked until there's a scandal, Latta said. Other common problems include evidence backlogs, insufficient staffing and inadequate supervision.

Evidence-technician jobs are complex and often little-understood by higher-ups whose expertise lies in "chasing bad guys, going on calls," Latta said.

When it comes to staffing, adding more evidence clerks may not get as much support as more public-facing positions, he said.

"It's a lot easier for a sheriff or a police chief to spend money on things that will make you safe," Latta said.

Latta is a veteran of the Burbank, California, police department and has compiled a running database of about 10,000 incidents of thefts, mismanagement, and misconduct. Most departments do not continue testing employees for drugs following the initial drug test they must pass to be hired, he said.

"So they give them all the drugs and there's no drug testing," he said.

Written by The Associated Press.

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