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See no evil: FBI blasted for failing to video monitor its own evidence room

The Washington Times,
BYLINE: Jim McElhatton - The Washington Times

Washington, DC

Lawyers seek dismissal of charges after lack of surveillance cameras brought to light

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. puts his hand to his face while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. Associated Press photo. Photo by: J. Scott Applewhite

The FBI’s evidence-handling controls are so lax that the agency didn’t have video cameras in its Washington field office evidence room, according to court documents that lawyers say could be used to call into question any number of convictions.

Although use of cameras is considered a good practice, neither the D.C. field office nor a cross-border task force assigned to major narcotics cases in the metropolitan area had them in their evidence rooms, according to a letter sent to 13 defense attorneys in a pending drug conspiracy case.

The details were revealed in court filings involving Matthew Lowry, an FBI agent suspected of pilfering heroin seized in federal narcotics investigations. Prosecutors have sought dismissal of charges against more than two dozen defendants after the investigation into Mr. Lowry was revealed.

Defense lawyers say the lax controls call into question other investigations where FBI agents had custody of critical evidence.

“If there’s a problem in the FBI evidence room, and it’s just a room with shelves and anybody can walk in and out, that would have huge implications as far as the trustworthiness of evidence,” defense lawyer A. Eduardo Balarezo said in an interview.

The lack of cameras was made public in a defense motion filed in a major drug conspiracy case pending in federal court in Washington. Prosecutors are reviewing their case amid the misconduct probe into Mr. Lowry, who has been accused of taking heroin and guns seized by his agency.

Mr. Balarezo said Mr. Lowry was able to check out evidence for extended periods for no apparent purpose.

On Monday, Mr. Balarezo filed a motion asking a judge to order prosecutors to produce all procedures at the FBI field office and task force for logging in and removing evidence.

No federal requirements govern evidence rooms, but video surveillance is considered a best practice to help ensure the integrity of evidence and some states and localities do mandate it, said Joe Latta, executive director for the International Association for Property and Evidence Inc.

“If you look at general law enforcement, I’d say more don’t have video surveillance than do,” Mr. Latta said. “Should they? Absolutely. But the evidence room is sometimes low on the food chain in the organization.”

His organization has been recommending cameras for years, saying surveillance of the door or the room’s interior is “an excellent control.”

Mr. Latta said the FBI isn’t the only law enforcement agency to be hit with thefts in the evidence room.

“I’ve got thousands of headlines and that’s no exaggeration,” he said. “Every day there is something going on.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington has sought dismissal of charges against at least 28 defendants in recent weeks since disclosing the investigation into Mr. Lowry.

The cases involve major narcotics cases that can take a year or more to investigate and include undercover drug buys and wiretaps.

The FBI did not respond by deadline to questions about the lack of cameras in the evidence control rooms but previously said the agency took “immediate steps” to address “the incident” involving Mr. Lowry and referred the misconduct accusations to the Justice Department’s office of inspector general.

Mr. Balarezo’s motion, however, raises broader questions about the reliability of FBI evidence. Prosecutors said Mr. Lowry acted alone, but the defense lawyer said the lack of controls could implicate the way evidence has been collected and secured by other agents, too.

At any trial, he said, the government would argue that evidence was handled properly within a strict chain of custody.

But if Mr. Lowry was able to avoid logging seized evidence and remove it for extended periods, then “it would stand to reason that the strict chain of custody claimed by the government in most cases is a sham,” Mr. Balarezo said.

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