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Sheriff's Office evidence could be tainted

The Gainesville Sun,
BYLINE: Chad Smith, Staff writer
Link to Article

Alachua County, FL

Evidence from a 2010 drug bust at the Alachua County Sheriff's Office.

Charles Allen Smith, the former evidence custodian at the Alachua County Sheriff's Office charged with stealing thousands of dollars in cash from the evidence room, will go on trial Monday.

But whatever the jurors decide next week, Smith and his former co-workers' methods in handling the agency's evidence could have jeopardized countless other cases, according to law enforcement officials and an internal review of the evidence section.

During an investigation into the section, a former evidence custodian admitted the staff would change dates to intentionally mislead defense attorneys about the chain of custody, the term for the proper handling and documentation of evidence in a case.

There also was theft, lost items, shoddy record keeping and even a latch to a secure area left broken for some time.

The inquiry into the evidence room started in July 2010, when Waldo Police Chief Mike Szabo tried to retrieve money being stored at the Sheriff's Office.

According to a report of the subsequent investigation, Marie Knowles, the evidence supervisor, said she couldn't find the cash.

That kicked off an inventory that found there were 205 missing items — 77 of which were later found but had not been catalogued properly — and 286 other items that were in the evidence room, though the agency had no documentation for them.

Stacy A. Scott, the public defender for Florida's 8th Judicial Circuit, which is based in Gainesville, said she found out about the investigative report, which was completed last fall, this week and said that the news was "troubling."

"We need to do further investigation to see exactly how troubling," Scott said.

It was not clear how many, if any, of her clients' cases might have been impacted by the gaps in the evidence handling.

She said the chain of custody is a crucial part of the justice system.

"It's like an assurance to jurors that the evidence is what they say it is and is what they think it is, so it is very important," she said.

According to an annual employee evaluation in October 2010, Knowles, the former evidence supervisor, admitted to altering that chain of custody.

"During the investigation, Ms. Knowles stated it is a common practice of both her and her staff to alter the date of the chain of custody in order to prevent defense attorneys from questioning its validity," the evaluation said. "Following the investigation, several other instances of items not located have occurred resulting in a current full audit of the units."

Essentially, evidence custodians allowed items to sit out for an unspecified period of time before being logged in to the agency's system, SmartCop. When they went to log in those items, custodians would back-date them to make it appear that the evidence had always been where it should have been — in a secure locker.

"If their computer program, which is SmartCop, allowed people to make changes to dates in the evidence log without those changes being tracked, that is a system issue," Scott said. "Hopefully they corrected it."

Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Todd Kelly said Thursday that Knowles resigned during the investigation.

Smith, now 27, was fired. He has been charged with grand theft, a third-degree felony.

The allegations that part-time evidence custodian Tommie Raulerson and support bureau chief Diana Jacobs had not performed their jobs were "not sustained" by Sheriff Sadie Darnell.

With Smith's trial set to start Monday, Kelly said he could not comment much about the case but said problems cited in the report have been corrected.

"As soon as the problem was detected, the internal investigation began immediately," Kelly said. "The public was made aware of it immediately. It was dealt with swiftly."

Kelly said there were some physical improvements made in the units as well as changes to security features and procedure, though he did not have the specifics Thursday.

Jeff McAdams, a Gainesville police officer and the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police union, said he had serious concerns about the findings.

"Once the chain of custody is called into question, that piece of evidence is tainted," McAdams said. "Innocent people could be in jail because of their actions."

Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or .

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