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Chain of custody

Definition: Documentation of the location of physical evidence from the time it is

collected until the time it is introduced at trial.
Significance: The establishment of chain of custody is important for all physical
evidence collected in criminal investigations, but it is particularly crucial when items of
evidence might become confused with other evidence or when there is a possibility that
someone could have tampered with the evidence. In criminal investigations, the
identification of an object as one found at a certain place involves the establishment of a
proper chain of custody, or paper trail. Each piece of physical evidence must be
authenticated or identified by a witness or through other means.
Authentication involves proof that the evidence is what it purports to be. Rule 901 of the
Federal Rules of Evidence sets out methods of authenticating or identifying evidence.
According to the rule, authentication or identification may be established by any of the
following means: testimony of a witness with knowledge
that a matter is what it is claimed to be, a nonexpert opinion as to the genuineness of
handwriting based on familiarity, comparison by the trier of fact (jury) or expert witness
with specimens that have been authenticated, distinctive characteristics, voice
identification, telephone conversations showing that a call was made to a certain number
and the identification of the person who answered the phone individually or on behalf of
a business, ancient document or data compilation in existence twenty years or more at the
time it is offered, evidence describing a process or system used to produce a particular
result, or a method provided by act of Congress or by other rules pursuant to statutory
Proper Chain of Custody
The first clause of Rule 901 addresses proper chain of custody. Aweapon found next to a
victim and then taken by the police and put into a bag that is sealed and marked with
identification can later be identified by an officer on the stand at trial as the one found
next to the victim. If more than one person had access to the bag, however, the role of
each must be accounted for to ensure that the evidence is truly the object it is claimed to
be. Similarly, when a powder is put into an evidence bag that is then sealed and checked
in to the evidence room, the bag may later be checked out and sent to a laboratory for
analysis of the contents. The laboratory technician has the responsibility of keeping track
of the substance while testing it. The technician can then take the stand and testify about
the identity of the substance. It should be noted that minor gaps in the chain of custody
are permissible and do not destroy the chain of custody. The evidence can be considered
by the jury, which will determine its reliability and its probative value, if any, given the
missing links in the chain. If, however, the evidence is not what the proponent claims it to
be because of tampering in the chain of custody, the judge may prevent the jury from
seeing or considering the evidence.
Chain of Custody in Court
It is important that law-enforcement personnel document the seizure, custody, control,
transfer, analysis, and disposition of physical and electronic evidence. Because evidence
can be used in court to convict persons of crimes, it must be handled carefully to avoid
later allegations of tampering or misconduct that can compromise cases. Establishing a
chain of custody is especially significant when the evidence takes the form of fungible
goods—that is, goods that can easily be substituted for other items in the same category.
This applies to illegal drugs seized by law enforcement. An identifiable person must
always have custody
of the evidence. Therefore, when a police officer or detective takes charge of a piece of
evidence, the officer or detective must document the item and give it to an evidence clerk
for secure storage. This transaction and every succeeding transaction affecting that
evidence, from its collection to its appearance in court, should be completely documented
so that the evidence can withstand any challenges to its authenticity. Properly detailed
documentation includes the conditions under which the evidence was gathered, the
identities of all those who handled the evidence and how long they had it in their
possession, the security conditions that existed during handling and storing of the
evidence, and the manners in which the evidence was transferred to subsequent
custodians. In the case of the recovery of a bloody weapon at a murder scene, for
example, every transfer of the weapon from person to person must be documented, from
the time the weapon is picked up at the scene to the time it is presented in court. Law-
enforcement personnel must be able to prove that only persons with legitimate reasons to
inspect, test, or otherwise examine the weapon have had access to it. In cases involving
chemical sampling, proper chain of custody ensures maintenance of the condition of
samples by providing documentation of their control, transfer, and analysis.

Courts and forensic evidence

Significance: One of the most important reasons law-enforcement investigators gather
evidence is to prove guilt in a court of law. The techniques used by forensic scientists
must be acceptable to courts in order for the evidence obtained through those techniques
to be admissible. Forensic scientists must thus be familiar with the types of evidence and
the techniques used to gather and examine evidence that are most likely to be admissible
in court. Any evidence that has been gained through the application of scientific means
can be considered forensic evidence. However, not all forensic evidence is considered
legitimate; in the United States, federal, state, and military courts have had varied
histories in regard to different types of forensic evidence. Many types of forensic
techniques have not always been accepted, and the legitimacy of many continues to be
debated. Before evidence gathered through the use of a particular forensic technique can
be considered admissible in a court of law, the technique must first be proven reliable.
Most often, forensic techniques become accepted through common law, which is the
practice of following prior decisions made in court. Any new forensic technique must be
vetted by a judge; usually, this means that an attorney presents the technique in court and
argues that the evidence produced using the technique should be admitted in a case. For
example, one of the first courts in the United States to accept the use
ofDNA(deoxyribonucleic acid) evidence was the Circuit Court in Orange County,
Florida. In 1987, Assistant State Attorney Tim Berry successfully argued that the DNA
from semen found on a murder victim matched DNAfrom a blood sample taken from the
defendant, Tommy Lee Andrews, and that DNA comparison was a reliable method of
establishing identity. To support his argument, Berry presented testimony by David
Houseman, a research biologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and
Michael Baird, a scientist at the laboratory where the samples where analyzed. Berry also
compared the use of DNAmatching to fingerprint identification, an already commonly
accepted forensic method. In 1989, in the case of People v. Castro, the use of DNA for
identification was seriously challenged in the New York Supreme Court. Over twelve
weeks of testimony and arguments, the cases for and against DNA evidence were
presented. In the end, the court found that DNA evidence is accepted by the scientific
community and thatDNAcomparison is an accepted forensic technique. Since then, cases
that use DNA evidence usually cite the case of People v. Castro to establish the
admissibility ofDNAevidence.
Admissibility of New Forensic Techniques
Before judges will accept evidence produced by new types of techniques, the evidence
must first pass several tests. The first of these is the traditional relevance test. To pass
this test, evidence must bring some fact to light and must not tend to confuse jurors more
often than it enlightens them. Beyond that test, differences exist between the federal
admissibility standard and the standard used by many state courts, the Frye standard,
established in the case of Frye v. United States in 1923. The Frye standard’s “general
acceptance” test requires merely that the techniques used to obtain or produce evidence
must be generally accepted by the scientific community. Federal courts, in contrast, as
well as many state courts, now follow a standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court
case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in 1993. The socalled Daubert standard
has multiple parts: For evidence to be admissible, the technique used to obtain or produce
it must be tested and peerreviewed, the technique’s margin of error must be known and
controlled, and the technique must be accepted within a relevant scientific community.
The determination of whether these tests have been met is the responsibility of the trial
judge. Since the Daubert decision, a
great deal of debate has taken place concerning the role of judges as the “gatekeepers” of
evidence. Many experts have lauded the decision as a way to keep pseudoscience out of
the courtroom, whereas others have argued that Daubert gives judges too much
individual discretion over what constitutes acceptable expert testimony. Unlike
fingerprint identification and DNA identification, some forensic techniques have not been
accepted by U.S. courts. In 1999, a Washington appeals court had to address an unusual
new identification technique used by investigators in the case of State of Washington v.
Kunze. An intruder who had killed two people in a house before robbing the house of
most of its valuables had left a full impression of one of his ears on a wall in a hallway at
the crime scene. An investigator from the Washington State Crime Laboratory was able
to lift the ear print from the wall using a technique normally used for fingerprints. This
print was compared with ear prints taken from the suspect, David Wayne Kunze, and a
criminologist from the laboratory, Michael Grubb, concluded that the print from the wall
was a likely match to the suspect. During pretrial hearings, however, Grubb admitted
that he had never worked with ear prints for identification before and that he had not seen
any studies about how often a particular ear shape might occur in the general population.
Even though several other identification experts were called in, the prosecution could not
establish that ear-print identification was generally accepted by the scientific community
(the court in Washington followed the Frye test, not the Daubert test), and the court
refused to accept ear-print identification as a legitimate forensic technique. Some types of
forensic evidence that were accepted by U.S. courts for years have later been found to be
unreliable. One forensic technique that has been discredited, comparative bulletlead
analysis (CBLA), was long practiced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and
had been accepted by U.S. courts since the 1960s. The technique involves comparing the
composition of the metal in a bullet that was used in a crime with the composition of the
metal in other bullets to establish the origins of the crime scene bullet. The technique is
based on the idea
that if the composition of two bullets is the same, then the bullets must have been made
by the same manufacturer on the same day, using the same batch of material. This
technique was used to produce the key evidence in a 1986 case against a man in North
Carolina named Lee Wayne Hunt. He was convicted of two counts of murder and has
been in prison for more than twenty years. However, in a 2004 report on a
study requested by the FBI, the National Research Council of the National Academy of
Sciences stated that CBLA is unreliable and can produce misleading results. Because of
this, many cases like the one against Hunt are under review, and it is probable that some
verdicts may be overturned. Even forensic techniques that have come to be thoroughly
accepted have not always been viewed as so reliable. In 1873, in the case of Tome v.
Parkersburg Railroad Company, the court rejected photographic evidence because it
said that photographs produced only “secondary impressions of the original” and that
they were susceptible to changes in lighting. Only one year later, in the case of
Udderzook v. Commonwealth, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that
photographs taken by an insurance company should be admitted as evidence. These
photographs were used to prove that a body found in the woods was that of a particular
man whom the insurance company had photographed when he took out his policy. The
court wrote, “The [photographic] process has become one in general use, so common
that we cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it as a proper means of producing
correct likeness.” Since that day, attorneys have cited the case of Udderzook v.
Commonwealth when presenting photographic evidence in court.