Chain of Custody of Biological Evidence: Garbage In = Garbage Out

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

In essence, this is the view held by The Technical Working Group on Biological Evidence Preservation in its publication entitled “The Biological Evidence Preservation Handbook: Best Practices for Evidence Handlers” which is a consensus document published by The Department of Commerce-National Institutes of Standards and Technology in cooperation with National Institute of Justice, the Office of Law Enforcement Standards and a committee of 22 scientists, prosecutors, evidence technicians and police. They wrote:
Across the nation, headlines tell the story of evidence that has been mishandled, misplaced, lost, or destroyed. Often the blame for these mishaps is directed toward property and evidence custodians housed in law enforcement agencies nationwide. Many law enforcement agencies do not properly address, recognize, or support the efforts of their property rooms. Although these agencies bear ultimate responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the evidence, the real problem lies with a systemic failure to properly account for evidence from collection through final disposition. This failure reduces the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system to produce just results in criminal and civil proceedings.
This is very true. At the end analysis, there are always major questions that surround any sort of biological specimen sampling. Validated steps must be put in place so as to insure the integrity of the biological sample and to make sure that it remains representative of the source. If we do not have tested and validated methods for specimen collections, then we can have no assurance that the sample is indeed representative of the whole from the purported source. If we do not have tested and validated methods for specimen handling post collection, then we can have no assurance that the sample collected remains in tact and not altered. These are fundamental “givens” that have been taken for granted for far too long in our criminal justice system.
How much training to evidence technicians and line officers get in the proper collection and preservation of biological evidence?
Surprisingly, next to none.
All of the most perfect and beautiful analysis in the world leads to one thing: “Garbage In=Garbage Out.” Collectively (defense lawyers, analysts and prosecutors) spend so much time focusing on analytical error. We all need to be concerned about pre-analytical error.
A colleague of ours Brian Manchester came out of court during the dog days of summer to find the below. This was so bad that he had to take pictures of it. Whether these specimen kits contain specimens or are “empty” kits, keeping these kits in the back of the patrol car (where prisoners go) in the hot sun and in the enclosed car full of heat, is certainly not best practice.
PSP patrol car with blood test kits in the glaring sun
PSP patrol car with blood test kits in the glaring sun

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