Understanding the Chain of Custody in a Criminal Case
The chain of custody refers to the foundation prosecutors need in order to establish that certain exhibits (or evidence) are admissible to the court. Exhibits are tangible items that are relevant to the facts of the case and help establish the prosecution’s case.
For example, when a person is accused of shoplifting, the stolen goods would be submitted as exhibits in their criminal case.
Prosecutors must prove that a particular exhibit that they wish to enter is what they say it is – meaning that they must prove that the calculator submitted into evidence is the one you actually attempted to steal. That requires proof that they had possession of the evidence at all times, between the date it was seized by the officers to the date it is submitted to the court. This is known as the chain of custody, and this chain has several links that can be easily broken.
The Links Within the Chain of Custody
Criminal prosecutions depend heavily on the evidence that is gathered by police during the investigative phase. Prosecutors, however, are the ones who are required to prove that the chain of custody exists. It is a common, solid defense strategy to attack the links within that chain, showing that officers did not collect evidence properly, or the chain was compromised somewhere along the line. If defense attorneys can establish a missing or broken link, they can then have the judge assess if the evidence is admissible. If a judge decides the chain of custody was broken, that evidence cannot be submitted or used in court.
The chain of custody goes beyond proving that the prosecution was in possession of the exhibit at all times. They must also establish that the evidence submitted is what they say it is. For example, in a cocaine drug case, the prosecutors must prove that the cocaine submitted was tested by a reputable scientific laboratory and proven to be cocaine. Then, they must establish other links within the chain, including:
- The officer who seized the evidence packaged it in a way to distinguish it from other evidence seized that same day or in the same arrest.
- The police stored the evidence in a secure location where no one could have removed it or tampered with it while in storage.
- A qualified expert must testify that the item presented to the court is in fact what the prosecutors say it is.
- The evidence given to and tested by that expert is proven to be one and the same, and it has not been compromised during transport.
- The expert followed all state-required procedures.
- The evidence tested is the same that was brought back to the court for admission.
Speak with an Attorney to Learn More About the Criminal Procedure
The chain of custody is just one of many things involved in a criminal case. If you have been arrested, it is important to contact a criminal defense attorney right away. An attorney can work quickly to gather evidence establishing your innocence, or start building a more effective defense strategy. For a consultation, call The Armstrong Law Group, P.A. today at 904-356-8618, or fill out an online contact form.