Mesa police running out of storage room for evidence

The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com
BYLINE: Nathan Gonzalez - The Arizona Republic
Link to Article

Mesa, AZ

Police face lack of storage room for items key to criminal cases

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Evidence supervisor Lane Darling pulls out an old rifle in the arms section of the evidence/property storage area at Mesa Police Headquarters on Thursday.

Stepping into the crowded gun room inside Mesa police's evidence section, senior evidence technician Don Traves reaches for the top shelf and grips a M1919 Browning machine gun with two hands.

It's an intimidating 31-pound piece of metal often used in battles from World War II to the Vietnam War. The relic, capable of shooting up to 600 rounds per minute, usually sits atop a shelf collecting dust.

"This one had questionable ownership," evidence supervisor Lane Darling said of the .30-caliber machine gun.

It is just one of the 4,000 firearms that have been held following a crime or for safekeeping while domestic-violence cases are resolved.

The gun room is also about 97 percent full, and it illustrates a growing concern: The department is quickly running out of evidence storage space.

The department has only 18,000 square feet of space in which to store guns, drug seizures and DNA evidence, all of which is catalogued, bar-coded and organized before going into storage.

Phoenix, by comparison, has 55,000 square feet, and Gilbert has 50,000.

The problem is not just clutter. How evidence is treated while in police hands can determine the outcome of a trial. If evidence is lost or mishandled, it can mean the difference between guilt or innocence.

Defense attorneys such as Greg Parzych are quick to exploit inconsistencies with the evidence. Attorneys monitor who had access to evidence against their client and will pressure a judge to toss it from the case if inconsistencies arise.

"The big one we look at is contamination," Parzych said. "I want to know who handled it? Did somebody else's DNA possibly get on it? That can happen very easily."

Aggravating the storage problem, Darling said, is that local and federal lawmakers continue to pass unfunded laws requiring evidence to be held longer. DNA in all homicides and sexual assaults must now be held for 55 years.

Mesa's evidence storage is scattered over several rooms at the main police station. Everything from rows of flat-panel TVs, tricycles and even door frames taken from murder scenes are packaged and stacked against the wall or whatever space is available.

"Overall, we are in the vicinity of about 85 percent full," Darling said, noting that the department has approximately 450,000 pieces of evidence in storage.

Most cases only have one or two pieces of evidence. But a homicide investigation may contain hundreds of items including audio and video of witness interviews, weapons and blood samples.

The current space hasn't grown much since first being put into use in 1996, Darling said. And at that time it was only meant to serve for 10 years.

Steep budget cuts citywide over the last couple of years have halted any immediate plans to expand or build additional space. However, the department is considering three options to gain additional room.

The first is to occupy space in the basement of the old city courthouse next door. Another would be to convert space in a department building near Juanita Avenue and Country Club Drive.

The third option would be to enclose part of the department's parking garage but that space is used for police vehicles.

"It's frustrating when the tools you have to do your job are limited," Darling said. "This is an expensive issue."

To help keep pace with the growth in the volume of evidence, Mesa police in February installed a 1,200-square-foot freezer that chills evidence to 5 degrees below zero. The freezer, which cost $500,000, joined three other freezers ranging in size from 300 to 1,000 square feet all of which house about 55,000 samples, including DNA, saliva and blood.

What's needed is a storage facility of about 50,000 square feet, Darling said. "That facility would last us comfortably for the next 15 to 20 years," he said.

Gilbert, which has half the population of Mesa, has a facility that's nearly three times as large.

"Our facility . . . was planned and built to last through Gilbert's forecasted max population (350,000)," Sgt. Bill Balafas, a Gilbert police spokesman, said in an e-mail. Gilbert's facility is about 20 percent full.

With little immediate chance of acquiring additional space, Mesa recently enacted a policy that allows investigators - in the presence of the suspect's attorney - to photograph large quantities of marijuana and save a 10-pound bale as a sample to be used at trial. The remainder is then disposed of to help clear space.

"We will lay all that stuff out so they can see all that evidence when photographing it. They aren't going to take this to court anyway - it's considered hazardous materials," Darling said.

The department also tries to return evidence to its owner once a judge has signed off on its release. Items that can't be returned are recycled, used in-house or auctioned off, with proceeds going to the city's general fund. Last year, about 56,000 items were purged.

"I have two people to work on purging," Darling said. "We're doing what we can."

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Money damaged by a exploded dye pack at the evidence storage area at Mesa Police Headquarters. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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Senior evidence technician Don Traves holds a confiscated large caliber rifle. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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Evidence supervisor Lane Darling pulls out an old rifle in the arms section of the evidence/property storage area at Mesa Police Headquarters. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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Evidence supervisor Lane Darling points out some of the held property at the evidence/property storage area. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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One of the bales of marijuana at the drug evidence storage area. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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Evidence supervisor Lane Darling pulls out an old rifle in the arms section of the evidence/property storage area at Mesa Police Headquarters. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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Evidence supervisor Lane Darling with flat-screen televisions held as evidence at the evidence storage area at Mesa Police Headquarters. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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Evidence supervisor Lane Darling pulls out a plastic bag with drugs and drug paraphernalia. - Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic

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International Association for Property and Evidence
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