Criminal litigation involves concepts that are difficult to comprehend for nonlegal individuals. For this reason, many defendants get lost in the process and do not understand where they stand in the case. A concept mostly heard in litigation but still causes confusion is the chain of custody.
Understanding the concept of chain of custody and how it breaks
In criminal cases, the chain of custody refers to the timeline from when the police obtained the evidence until the prosecutor presented it in court. The sequence usually runs as follows:
- Collection and identification: This refers to the time the law enforcement officer obtains the evidence of the crime or parts of it. The police can obtain evidence by collecting it from a crime scene or by receiving it from the victim or a witness.
- Tagging or labeling: Once the law officer collects the evidence, they must properly tag, label or mark it, whichever is applicable. This typically includes the item description, collection date and location and the collector’s name, among others.
- Analysis and processing: During this process, forensic scientists analyze the evidence to confirm the substance, identify any left prints or reconstruct the crime.
- Evidence storage and preservation: As the name suggests, evidence storage refers to the duration law enforcement seals and stores the evidence until it is time to present it to court.
- Presentation: This pertains to when the prosecutor presents the evidence during the trial, though sometimes the prosecutor only brings a copy to the court.
If there are discrepancies in the evidence’s handling or unexplained changes in the physical evidence, it means that there is a breaking of the chain of custody. For instance, the records show that the evidence was missing for a certain period. However, law enforcement cannot prove who had the evidence at that time, which means they can no longer vouch for the evidence’s authenticity.
What it means for your criminal case
If it shows a breakage in the chain of evidence, the defendant can move to hold the evidence inadmissible in court. This stems from the defendant’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
While the evidence’s inadmissibility does not guarantee that the court will dismiss the case, it holds great weight in the court’s final decision, especially if there are no other available physical evidence or witnesses. Proper preparation and competent representation can help the defendant identify any discrepancies and dispute evidence credibility when the need arises.