District and juvenile courts in Utah aren’t efficiently tracking and protecting evidence used in trials, and staff in charge of storage rooms aren’t adequately trained in how to inventory or dispose of items — such as drugs or firearms — in their care, a newly released audit said.
When state officials first started examining six district and three juvenile courts, they discovered that evidence management systems didn’t allow them to take inventory of what was retained (or wasn’t) to determine whether items had gone missing, according to the audit released Tuesday.
Court clerks often kept handwritten notes about the status of evidence, and in four instances, storage rooms were accessible with just a traditional metal key rather than a key card — meaning anyone with that key could enter and leave no trace of who had been inside. All the audited storage rooms lacked alarms and most didn’t have cameras, the audit said.
The courts system has already begun to correct the deficiencies, state court Administrator Judge Mary T. Noonan wrote to auditors in a letter included in the report. “We agree with the findings and appreciate the candid approach and professionalism of the audit managers who performed the audit,” she wrote.
State courts spokesman Geoffrey Fattah said the courts plan to adopt a nationally recognized standard to regulate how evidence is tracked and to better train staff. The court system’s security director has been working with staff to make sure all evidence rooms have adequate locks, he added.
The Judicial Council’s Policy and Planning Executive Committee will also review the audit at its September meeting.
While the courts have not received any reports of staff misconduct or mishandling of evidence, Fattah said, “we acknowledge the risk potential, and so that’s why we’re using this as an opportunity to basically step it up and have better policies."
FLAWED EVIDENCE STORAGE IN COURTS
The new audit of how courts handle evidence outlined four findings:
• The courts don’t routinely audit or inventory evidence rooms and use an inadequate case management system that doesn’t comprehensively track items.
• The court system’s evidence rooms had lax security that could not provide a “reasonable assurance” of their integrity or security.
• Court officials didn’t track the disposal or release of evidence, including potentially dangerous items such as guns and drugs.
• Officials dealing with evidence weren’t properly trained.
State Auditor John Dougall said in a phone interview that clerks didn’t create inventories because the process of looking through individual case files and handwritten notes was so cumbersome. None of the clerks or exhibit managers who were interviewed had ever taken inventory of evidence, and none had heard of any internal or independent audits, the report notes.
Auditors recommended the courts adopt “modern evidence management practices” to log evidence and conduct regular inventories and audits.
The report also noted that that no courts kept access logs to their evidence rooms, and three courts allowed unauthorized access to these rooms. And while all evidence rooms required either a hard key or key card to enter, only two rooms had cameras installed inside and none had alarm systems.
“These oversights increase the risk that evidence could be lost, stolen, damaged, or tampered with,” the audit said.
According to Utah rules, courts are expected to return or dispose of evidence once the items are no longer needed in court. However, the audit found that often clerks don’t know how to get rid of evidence, and when they do it, they do so improperly.
Dougall referred to a case where auditors learned that a previous exhibit manager had gotten “a lot of firearms and narcotics," loaded them into a truck and returned them to agencies.
“But there’s not a second person to witness it. There was no record that took place. There was no receipt from the police departments indicating that they had received this evidence back,” Dougall said. “It was just somebody [saying], ‘Oh, I remember somebody taking that stuff', and that was as much as we had.”
In another instance, auditors found a box labeled “bio hazard" that included items from a methamphetamine lab. It had been in the evidence room since 2001, and the only record the court had of it was an index card that said the box’s contents had been destroyed.
According to the audit, none of the court clerks or exhibit managers interviewed had ever had formal training in handling, storing, returning or destroying evidence. They “expressed a desire to dispose of [guns and drugs] but indicated they did not know how to do so," the report said.
Those issues, Fattah said, may be explained by court employees not being accustomed to following “a law enforcement standard for evidence,” paired with court rules that are “basically designed to temporarily house evidence.”
Fattah said the audit revealed that the court system needs ensure employees follow its own rules regarding disposing of or destroying evidence, but also that "we could maybe improve our security and our policies and training.”
The state Auditor’s office also looked into how seven law enforcement agencies handle evidence and found similar deficiencies, including that all of them had items missing or misplaced from their inventory, in addition to items marked as destroyed that weren’t, or vice versa.
To report an issue to the state auditor, visit hotline.utah.gov.