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Lyons: Police evidence room report raises questions

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune,
BYLINE: Tom Lyons
Link to Article

Sarasota, FL

A local attorney called last week to say he had a newsworthy report in hand, but didn't want to say where he got it, and wanted to remain nameless when he passed it to me.

It was about evidence storage issues at the new Sarasota Police headquarters, the kind of thing that might cause chain-of-custody problems for prosecutors handling criminal cases.

Local criminal defense attorneys could be all over it, given the chance. And they were all about to get that chance, because the report was being handed to some of them, too, the attorney said.

Thinking I was about to be handed something that had somehow been kept under wraps until it was smuggled out of the bowels of the city bureaucracy, I had to chuckle when I got my first look at it.

It was a perfectly ordinary audit report that had been completed in May 2011.

"You can obtain copies of this report by contacting us at Office of the City Auditor and Clerk," it said on page two, followed by the address and phone number for Sarasota City Hall.

And, actually, you need not bother. You can read it online at the city's website. Just look up recent internal audits and click on the "Sarasota Police Department Property Evidence" audit, also known as #EX 11-01.

It won't be as much fun doing it that way, without the intrigue and hype. But the report, signed by Sarasota's internal audit manager Heather Riti and City Clerk Pam Nadalini, says after evidence and other tagged-and-stored, investigation-related property was moved to the new police headquarters building late in 2010, at least three packages were discovered to be lost or at least temporarily misplaced.

One is a box containing a few small pieces of crack cocaine. Another holds a handgun that was scheduled for destruction and may have been, though the records don't make that clear. And the last is listed as "$14.49 in change."

Not too exciting so far.

But, as the report added in positive sounding government-speak, "opportunities exist to enhance physical security" of the evidence storage rooms. The list of flaws there is where criminal defense lawyers will be shopping for things that could worry a jury.

For instance, keypad entry to one evidence storage room is less than ideal, it says, because "all officers know the keypad combination" even though the room "should not be accessible to anyone except Property and Evidence Unit staff."

Alarms that went off at the old building when anyone came and went through an evidence-room door weren't in place in the new building, the audit says.

And though the system can use biometric identification to record which Property and Evidence staff members come in and out, and when, those staff members were also given keys that can be used instead. The keys don't leave any record of who came in, the audit says.

That's all kind of amazing, says defense attorney Derek Byrd, president of the Sarasota County Bar Association.

"There isn't a property department in the world that allows just any cop to come and go," Byrd says, because of the potential for evidence tampering.

Pills can be replaced, inconvenient biological evidence could be switched or destroyed.

"It's going to create issues because that's not the way it's always been done," Byrd says.

But just as amazing, Byrd said, is that this audit was finished in May of last year and, even if quietly posted at City Hall at the time, defense attorneys have not known about it.

On Monday, which was a holiday, I couldn't reach anyone who could tell me whether the State Attorney's Office was ever told about the internal audit. Police Chief Michael Holloway got a copy, since it was his department that requested the audit, according to a list of recipients in my copy. But I was unable to reach him on Monday to ask who else was informed.

Rules of evidence require that prosecutors tell defense teams about potential evidence problems "if they knew about it," Byrd said.

If they weren't told about the audit, he said, the question is: Why not?

Tom Lyons can be contacted at or (941) 361-4964.

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