Why It’s Important to Have a Well-Documented Chain of Custody

July 28, 2020 Natalie Dunlap

Collecting evidence is an important part of any investigation. It can even be argued that it’s the most important part—after all, you cannot make arrests and move forward with a trial without proper evidence of a crime. However, searching for evidence and properly identifying it is only one part of the equation—you must also know how to maintain its chain of custody. Today, we’ll cover what chain of custody is, and why it’s so critical that it be well-documented.

What Is Chain of Custody?

Chain of custody is the chronological account or paper trail that shows the seizure, analysis, transfer, and disposition of evidence. These accounts can be electronic or physical in nature. In the eyes of the law, since items of evidence are used to convict people of crimes, evidence tracking and handling should be flawless, to avoid allegations of misconduct or tampering.

Forming the Foundation for Prosecution

When a case goes to trial, especially one that has been under investigation for months or years, the prosecution’s success or failure will be affected by the efficiency of local law enforcement’s evidence management system. Even ‘inconsequential’ evidence logged at the start of a case might prove to be pivotal later in the proceedings.

Must Be Authenticated to Be Deemed Admissible

To be deemed admissible in court, evidence should be authenticated. This means the prosecution must show that the procedures for collecting evidence were legitimate. A neutral, third-party expert can be brought in to help. The expert can determine if evidence was collected properly and if there is enough documentation to guarantee authenticity. This makes it important for law enforcement and prosecutors to be knowledgeable in the protocols of keeping a solid chain of custody. If the chain of custody was properly followed, there should be no problems determining authenticity and granting admissibility.

How to Properly Document the Chain of Custody

In order to maintain a proper chain of custody, the documents must have the date, time, and location where the evidence was collected, the name of the investigators responsible for tagging the evidence, and the name or owner of the item. Officers must also log their reason for collecting this evidence. If the item has serial numbers, these will be logged, as well as any other distinguishing information. Furthermore, the officers must note the environment where the evidence was collected, and any issues encountered when getting the item into custody.

The Bottom Line

When there are plenty of details about how evidence was logged, there is little room for speculations about its validity. All parties involved in a trial should present credible, verified evidence. Even a single misstep in documentation can change the outcome of a case.

Evidence Management Software

If your department or office needs a way to accurately track evidence, you should use our products at PMI Evidence Tracker™. We offer police evidence management software fit for local, state, or federal law enforcement agents. Contact us today!