Chain of custody
refers to the chronological documentation or paper trail, showing the seizure, custody, control, transfer, analysis, and disposition of evidence
Evidence in its broadest sense includes everything that is used to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion. Giving or procuring evidence is the process of using those things that are either presumed to be true, or were themselves proven via evidence, to demonstrate an assertion's truth...
, physical or electronic. Because evidence can be used in court to convict persons of crimes, it must be handled in a scrupulously careful manner to avoid later allegations of tampering or misconduct which can compromise the case of the prosecution toward acquittal
In the common law tradition, an acquittal formally certifies the accused is free from the charge of an offense, as far as the criminal law is concerned. This is so even where the prosecution is abandoned nolle prosequi...
or to overturning a guilty verdict upon appeal
An appeal is a petition for review of a case that has been decided by a court of law. The petition is made to a higher court for the purpose of overturning the lower court's decision....
. The idea behind recording the chain of custody
is to establish that the alleged evidence is in fact related to the alleged crime, rather than having, for example, been planted fraud
In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual; the related adjective is fraudulent. The specific legal definition varies by legal jurisdiction. Fraud is a crime, and also a civil law violation...
ulently to make someone appear guilty.
Establishing chain of custody is made of both a chronological and logical procedure, especially important when the evidence consists of fungible goods. In practice, this most often applies to illegal drugs which have been seized by law enforcement personnel. In such cases, the defendant at times disclaims any knowledge of possession of the controlled substance
A controlled substance is generally a drug or chemical whose manufacture, possession, or use are regulated by a government. This may include illegal drugs and prescription medications ....
in question. Accordingly, the chain of custody
documentation and testimony
In law and in religion, testimony is a solemn attestation as to the truth of a matter. All testimonies should be well thought out and truthful. It was the custom in Ancient Rome for the men to place their right hand on a Bible when taking an oath...
is presented by the prosecution to establish that the substance in evidence was in fact in the possession of the defendant.
An identifiable person must always have the physical custody of a piece of evidence. In practice, this means that a police
The police is a personification of the state designated to put in practice the enforced law, protect property and reduce civil disorder in civilian matters. Their powers include the legitimized use of force...
officer or detective will take charge of a piece of evidence, document its collection, and hand it over to an evidence clerk for storage in a secure place. These transactions, and every succeeding transaction between the collection of the evidence and its appearance in court, should be completely documented chronologically in order to withstand legal challenges to the authenticity of the evidence. Documentation should include the conditions under which the evidence is gathered, the identity of all evidence handlers, duration of evidence custody, security conditions while handling or storing the evidence, and the manner in which evidence is transferred to subsequent custodians each time such a transfer occurs (along with the signatures of persons involved at each step).
An example of chain of custody
would be the recovery of a bloody knife at a murder scene:
- Officer Andrew collects the knife and places it into a container, then gives it to forensics technician Bill.
- Forensics technician Bill takes the knife to the lab and collects fingerprints and other evidence from the knife. Bill then gives the knife and all evidence gathered from the knife to evidence clerk Charlene.
- Charlene then stores the evidence until it is needed, documenting everyone who has accessed the original evidence (the knife, and original copies of the lifted fingerprints).
The chain of custody requires that from the moment the evidence is collected, every transfer of evidence from person to person be documented and
that it be provable that nobody else could have accessed that evidence. It is best to keep the number of transfers as low as possible.
In the courtroom, if the defendant questions the chain of custody of the evidence it can be proven that the knife in the evidence room is the same knife found at the crime scene. However, if there are discrepancies and it cannot be proven who had the knife at a particular point in time, then the chain of custody is broken and the defendant can ask to have the resulting evidence declared inadmissible.
Chain of custody
is also used in most chemical sampling situations to maintain the integrity of the sample by providing documentation of the control, transfer, and analysis of samples. Chain of custody is especially important in environmental work where sampling can identify the existence of contamination and can be used to identify the responsible party.