Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mendocino County GJ: County holding on to mountain of evidence

Ukiah Daily Journal Staff
Updated: 06/19/2010 12:00:23 AM PDT

The county's main evidence storage room is packed to capacity with about 96,000 pieces of evidence because of a communication problem with the District Attorney's Office and a shortage of staff, according to the Mendocino County grand jury.

The GJ released a report, "A Mountain of Evidence: A Report on the Mendocino County Main Storage Evidence Room," on June 9.

The GJ found the facility organized but "overcrowded with evidence from closed and adjudicated cases."

The evidence, stored in containers on 10-foot-high shelves in the 5,000 square-foot building, "may not be purged until notification from the MCDAO," according to the report.

The GJ blames the overcrowding partly on an ongoing "lack of communication between the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office and evidence room staff," claiming the District Attorney's Office doesn't notify the storage room's staff when court cases are resolved in order to purge the evidence for those cases.

The District Attorney's Office has a form available for cases where a person claims their property, but in the absence of a claim or court order, the evidence stays in storage.

The District Attorney's Office currently doesn't use the form, "Mendocino County District Attorney Office Disposition-Evidence Memo," or the sheriff's form, "Authorization for Release/Disposition of Property," to authorize the release or the destruction of evidence.

The report calls for the district attorney to pick one of the forms to use.

"Purging and disposition of evidence requires greater staff than is currently available," the report states.

Currently, purging evidence requires a technician to pick a container with an old date; research the case to find the name of the perpetrator or perpetrators; search the District Attorney's Office and court records; check the name of each perpetrator for active arrests, bench warrants, pending felonies or pending litigation; and check the statute of limitations for certain crimes.

Some evidence must be kept as long as 99 years, the GJ notes.

The evidence room stores items for all local law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, Cal Fire and the state Department of Fish and Game.

The GJ notes the evidence room has a full-time and a part-time evidence technician, a skilled job estimated to require three years of supervised training. The GJ recommends that the Board of Supervisors add an evidence technician job, and that the sheriff recruit a student or volunteer as a part-time aide.

The GJ notes four evidence technicians were employed at the storage facility previously, and that evidence intake doubled in the last 10 years.

The GJ recommends that the sheriff and evidence technician list upgrades the evidence room needs, and that the sheriff create a five-year plan to complete them.

The GJ also notes as a discussion point, not as a recommendation, that the evidence room "reeks of marijuana which becomes moldy when stored, causing health hazards for employees."

The GJ found that the storage facility has poor ventilation.

Other recommendations include use of a bar code system for evidence storage, which the GJ notes the Sheriff's Office is evaluating for use countywide.

Currently, records detailing where evidence is stored are kept manually in a card file with no backup, and the GJ recommends installing a sprinkler system in the office area to protect the records in case of fire.

Recommendations also include correcting a tripping hazard and trimming a tree that encroaches on nearby power lines.

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