Chain of Custody in Drug Cases

Chain of Custody in Drug CasesThe police and prosecutors must account for the evidence they seize from you, or that is used against you. In drug cases, the accounting must take place from the moment any drugs are seized, and from the moment there are any chemical evaluations of the drugs. It’s only through an accounting of who handled the drugs or reports, and how they were handled, that the judge and jury can be sure the evidence that is presented in court is the evidence that applies to your case.

The accounting is known as a chain of custody. The drug evidence is kept in custody. The links in the chain of custody are created each time the drugs or reports are touched, moved, or handled. If there is a break in any link, then the evidence should be excluded from your trial.

The chain of custody rules apply to the drugs themselves for two fundamental reasons:

  • First, the drugs shouldn’t be tampered with in any way. It should be clear that other more serious drugs weren’t substituted for the original drugs, for example.
  • Second, drugs can decompose over time. The chain of custody rules help ensure that the drugs were properly stored and preserved.

There is also a state law on the chain of custody of electronic records. WAC 434-662-060 (Authentication and chain of custody of electronic records) provides that “The agency must maintain chain of custody of the record, including employing sufficient security procedures to prevent additions, modifications, or deletion of a record by unauthorized parties. If there is a break in the chain of custody, it must be noted in the transmittal to the archives.”

The government has the burden of proving that the evidence it offers is what the evidence purports to be. If there is any likelihood that evidence was replaced with other evidence, or that evidence was tampered with in any way – then the chain of custody is broken.

How the chain of custody of drug evidence normally works

The following people and events normally need to be accounted for after drugs are seized. A proper accounting includes written or electronic records detailing who was involved, when the transaction occurred, where the drugs are located, and the reason for the transaction. The accounting may also include photographs or videos of the transaction.

  • The officer who takes the drugs from you needs to account for the initial seizure of the drugs.
  • The officer then stores the drugs at the police station somewhere. There should be evidence that this storage location and all other storage locations are secure/locked.
  • The drugs may be evaluated by an expert for their weight and to identify the specific drugs involved. There may be other chemical reviews as well.
  • After the evaluation, the drugs need to be returned to a law enforcement officer.
  • The law enforcement officer who takes the drugs from the expert has to restore the drugs somewhere.
  • The drugs need to be taken from the storage location to the courthouse where the trial is being heard. If there are multiple hearings, then there are separate links in the chain for each hearing.

An experienced defense lawyer will review each link to determine if there’s a break in the chain anywhere. If there’s a break, the evidence should be excluded – which means it can’t be presented at your trial.

There may be additional chain of custody issues such as:

  • When the chemical analysis of the drugs must take place
  • What happens when different types of drugs are seized
  • What happens when large amounts of drugs are seized

At Philbrook Law Office, our Vancouver, Washington drug crime defense lawyers work aggressively to exclude evidence that might be used against you. In many cases, we seek to suppress evidence in advance of the trial because it was seized in violation of your Constitutional rights, or because the police failed to follow proper procedures. For example, in drug cases, we question whether the seizure was made without a warrant and the chain of custody of the drugs. If you (or a loved one) are arrested, call our offices in Vancouver or Battle Ground, WA. You can reach us at 360-205-9615 or fill out our contact form. It’s critical that you speak with a lawyer as soon as possible after an arrest.