Evidence keepers scrutinized by Grand Jury
December 11, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN and KAREN VELIE
A San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury is probing allegations of sloppy evidence protection by law enforcement and reviewing procedures currently being used by the Sheriff’s Department to protect evidentiary integrity.
Sources with detailed knowledge of the Grand Jury’s investigation said the panel is examining specific systems of storage to determine if evidence slated for use in court proceedings is properly protected, and that the “chain of custody” — a demonstrable sequence of possession — is constantly maintained.
State law requires that the evidence “room must be secure from unauthorized entry,” with materials consisting ideally of concrete block “with both the cealing and the floors being impervious to entry,” according to The California Commission on POST Property Evidence Management Guide. Because evidence can be used in court, the chain of custody is required to be scrupulously handled with very few individuals in the law enforcement system permitted access.
Prosecution of criminal cases already adjudicated or in progress could be adversely impacted if a pattern of breaks in the custodial chain could be demonstrated.
Practices at the sheriff’s Coast Station in Los Osos have raised special concerns. Materials gathered as evidence at crime scenes and placed in that satellite office are stored adjacent to the weapons locker, and both areas are easily accessible to numerous individuals with keys, said sources. Deputies stationed at Coast patrol from Avila Beach to San Simeon, and from Los Padres mountain range to the ocean.
Sheriff Pat Hedges declined comment, noting that “it would be inappropriate for me to discuss any Grand Jury investigation or report.”
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn said the Grand Jury was interested in staffing issues pertaining to the security of evidence locker systems.
SLO County’s Grand Jury examines and reports on administrative and government matters, and does not deal with criminal issues. Topics and details of the panel’s investigations are generally a closely-held secret until public dissemination of the annual report occurs in the spring.