SFPD evidence room fix may take time - Albuquerque Journal

SFPD evidence room fix may take time

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The evidence room at the Santa Fe Police Department.

The Santa Fe Police Department evidence room needs fixing, but the problems might take some time to solve as department officials say they need to find the money to hire additional personnel and implement new evidence management software.

The issue came to a head last year when the department lost evidence in a murder case, leading the Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office to give the defendant a favorable plea deal.

An independent auditor now has found several areas where the department needs to improve what’s described as a messy evidence room – for instance, hundreds of pills sit in an open box, open to anyone who wants to grab a handful – and also found instances where the department wasn’t following its own evidence management policies.

And the auditor, SCS Northwest Consulting Services, couldn’t find the evidence in a randomly selected sexual assault case.

“This is unacceptable evidence management,” says the audit report released by SFPD earlier this month.

The department has an inflated inventory and a lot of stored evidence is for misdemeanor cases that have aged past the statute of limitations, the report says. Some drug evidence goes back to 1997.

“We know we can do better as a police department and with this review we have established a corrective action plan to correct the issues identified,” SFPD Chief Andrew Padilla said in an email. “We want to inform the community we will resolve these issues, follow the best practices, hire more staff and purchase a true standalone evidence management system.”

SFPD Deputy Chief Ben Valdez, who is overseeing changes to the evidence room, said the department will ask city leadership for funding to more than double its three-man evidence staff, by hiring three more technicians and a supervisor. He said the hiring process will take at least a couple months.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get new people on board and get them up to speed,” Valdez said.

Valdez also said SFPD will start shopping for evidence management software to replace equipment that was brought in during the ’80s. He said the department would like a system that uses bar codes to reduce human error.

The audit also cites how the department isn’t following several of its own policies, like one that says the property custodian is supposed to keep a computerized log of all items submitted for evidence or for safekeeping.

SFPD’s policy also says, “All containers of narcotics, controlled substances, and dangerous drugs shall be periodically inspected for tampering or replacement. The containers holding these substances shall be officially sealed in tamper-proof packages.”

The audit report came with photos of the evidence room, including one that shows hundreds of pills in an open box, drugs that came from people who were disposing of their old prescription medications using a drop-box program.

“Items from the Drug Drop-Off Boxes are open to viewing and potential theft in the Evidence Office,” the report says. “This needs to stop immediately.”

Chief Padilla said the department plans to establish a protocol to immediately send the drugs to the Department of Public Safety for destruction.

“Narcotics (are) to be transferred out of the drop off boxes into a secured box(s) so it all can be safely and securely transferred over to DPS,” Padilla wrote.

The audit also says the evidence room staff isn’t educated on statutes regarding crimes, the time frame for storing found property and laws regarding DNA retention. Deputy Chief Valdez said new software will likely include information on statutes and will be able to tell an evidence technician when a case has passed the statute of limitations.

The audit recommends purging misdemeanor evidence before reorganizing. It also recommends destroying the old drugs in the evidence room as soon as possible. “Do not allow procrastination or ‘we are too busy’ to deter from these destructions,” the report says.

According to the audit report, SFPD Lt. Sean Strahon contacted the SCS auditing firm to seek International Association for Property and Evidence accreditation in April.

But in June, SFPD Deputy Chief Paul Joye sent a letter to the Santa Fe District Attorney’s saying the department lost 11 pieces of evidence in the murder case against Christopher Garcia, including trace hair that was found on the fatal stabbing victim, 21-year-old Selena Valencia, as well as some of her fingernail clippings.

Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office crime scene technician Shari Vialpando conducted a court-ordered audit of the evidence in the case and found that some items were labeled with the wrong case number and other items were being held in unsealed envelopes.

Garcia’s attorney, Jennifer Burrill, filed a motion to dismiss the charges due to the lost evidence, but a judge denied the motion. Garcia, initially charged with first-degree murder, later pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The DA’s Office said the lost evidence affected the prosecution of the case. Although Garcia originally faced life in prison, Burrill said he could get out in about six years with good behavior.

Last week, District Attorney’s Office spokesman Henry Varela said the evidence room may still cause some issues for prosecutors.

“Inevitably, with SFPD cases we may see an uptick in pretrial litigation on issues of lost, uncollected or mishandled evidence,” Varela said in an email. “We also anticipate that more SFPD investigated cases will proceed to trial with this issue, when relevant, a major part of the defense trial strategy. … We appreciate the Santa Fe Police Department’s efforts to address this critical issue and we are committed to helping SFPD improve its evidence tracking and retention system.”

Burrill, who is also the vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said she is concerned that the department didn’t use accreditation programs offered by the New Mexico Association of Counties, among other organizations, to make sure the evidence room was up to current standards.

“It’s a little baffling to me why the Santa Fe Police Department hasn’t taken advantage of these resources,” Burrill said.

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