Gehrke: How will Utah’s police respond now that an audit shows mistakes in handling evidence

Last October, a Weber County evidence technician admitted she had ripped open envelopes she was supposed to safeguard and eaten the methamphetamine inside.

This technician, who was later sentenced to six months in jail, literally devoured crucial evidence in at least 20 and perhaps as many as 60 drug cases, according to investigators.

It was a sensational case, got headlines across the state and I’m sure made lots of people ask: “People eat meth?”

But a review by Utah State Auditor John Dougall released last week found this was far from the only problem in how law enforcement agencies are handling the drugs, guns, cash and other property taken from crime scenes. Dougall’s team found a litany of sloppy and inept handling of criminal evidence around the state that are perhaps less shocking, but poses a real threat to our system of justice.

They ranged from things like records not matching the property in storage, inadequate safeguards, a lack of security for digital records, a failure to issue a receipt when police take property as evidence, and sloppy record-keeping when property was destroyed.

While it may seem like technical missteps, those last two, in particular, — not issuing receipts and sloppy record-keeping — make it easy for evidence to conveniently go missing.

Dougall’s team found 139 instances where evidence was just gone, almost all of those examples were drugs or drug paraphernalia, but the list also included a gun.

And it’s safe to say that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The audit looked at just seven agencies, selected to represent police forces of different sizes and situations around the state and in each and every department, they found similar problems, meaning its safe to assume that shortcomings exist at the other 128 law enforcement agencies statewide. (Those seven agencies were not identified in the report.)

As the auditor’s review put it: “Inaccurate inventory records not only erode public trust but also may diminish the ability to prosecute past, current, or future cases.”

Prominent defense attorney Greg Skordas said his colleagues have been buzzing in a private discussion group about the audit findings, recognizing that something they often took for granted — that evidence was handled properly — might not have always been true and some cases might warrant a second look.

“It's not necessarily that an innocent person would be wrongly convicted,” he said. “It’s that good cases are now going to have to be re-examined and maybe dismissed because a prosecutor can’t establish a clean line where the evidence came from and where it went.”

And we’ve seen that very problem play out, not just with the Weber County meth-eater, but on an even larger scale in West Valley City.

Back in 2013, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill dismissed dozens of cases — ultimately more than 120, he said — investigated by the West Valley City narcotics unit, after it was found they were pocketing “trophies” from arrests, mishandling evidence, shoddy documentation and other reasons.

“The process was initially compromised, so we had to go back and reset,” Gill said. “We re-filed some, we didn’t file others. … But what it does to the reputation, what it does to the process, that’s harder to recover from.”

And that really goes to the crux of the issue. Our criminal justice system works — to the extent that it works — because the public has confidence in it. But that public trust relies on each link in the chain.

A sloppy or incompetent evidence technician maybe isn’t as sexy as a crooked cop or a rogue prosecutor or a shady judge, but to the extent that the handling and retention of evidence is the weak link in the chain, the entire system is undermined.

“The integrity of public institutions is under attack at the national level,” Gill said. “Our institutional integrity is only as good as the processes we adopt and the checks and balances built into them and how transparent we are in the accountability of these processes.”

This review should be a wakeup call to law enforcement across the state. They have an obligation to follow best practices every step of the way.

That should include a renewed focus on regular and thorough auditing and rigorous accountability to weed out those evidence handlers who are either bad actors or unable to fulfill their obligations. It means departments examining whether they put enough resources into this vital area.

It shouldn’t have taken Dougall’s office to shine a light on this, but hopefully his review will bring about a shift in the culture at the state’s police departments and strengthen that link in the chain.