Friday, December 19, 2014

F.B.I. Evidence is Often Mishandled




F.B.I. Evidence Is Often Mishandled, an Internal Inquiry Finds

By MATT APUZZO and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDTDEC. 19, 2014

The J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. building in Washington. Auditors have found many problems with how the bureau handles evidence. Credit Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

F.B.I. agents in every region of the country have mishandled, mislabeled and lost evidence, according to a highly critical internal investigation that discovered errors with nearly half the pieces of evidence it reviewed.

The evidence collection and retention system is the backbone of the F.B.I.’s investigative process, and the report said it is beset by problems. It also found that the F.B.I. was storing more weapons, less money and valuables, and two tons more drugs than its records had indicated.

The report’s findings, based on a review of more than 41,000 pieces of evidence in F.B.I. offices around the country, could have consequences for criminal investigations and prosecutions. Lawyers can use even minor record-keeping discrepancies to get evidence thrown out of court, and the F.B.I. was alerting prosecutors around the country on Friday that they may need to disclose the errors to defendants.

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Many of the problems cited in the report appear to be hiccups in the F.B.I.’s transition to a computer system known as Sentinel, which went online in 2012 and was intended to move the bureau away from a case-management system based on paper files. But other problems, including materials that disappeared or were taken from F.B.I. evidence rooms and not returned, are more serious.

“A majority of the errors identified were due in large part to human error, attributable to a lack of training and program management oversight,” auditors wrote in the report, which was obtained by The New York Times.

F.B.I. officials on Friday said that they decided on their own to conduct the review after discovering during an internal audit that there might be issues with the record keeping for evidence.

“The FBI identified issues primarily related to the migration of its earlier record-keeping process to its updated case management system,” said Michael Kortan, the F.B.I.’s chief spokesman. “The bureau is now strengthening procedures in field offices across the country to improve administrative consistency and record-keeping.”

The F.B.I. is separately dealing with the fallout from a case at its Washington office, where an agent is under investigation for tampering with evidence. That has led to the dismissal of convictions in some drug cases. Though the internal review is unrelated to that matter, the issues are so entwined that the F.B.I. plans to distribute the report to dozens of lawyers involved whose cases were affected by the Washington investigation, officials said.

The errors cited in the audit range in severity from computer glitches and duplicate bar codes to evidence that could not be located. The investigation found that federal agents had removed 1,600 pieces of evidence from storage and had not returned them for more than four months. One piece of evidence in a drug case has been signed out since 2003. Another piece of evidence has been out since 2006, the report found.

Because the audit was based on a sample, the actual number of items that have been checked out and not returned is probably much higher.

The results also varied by field office. In Newark, Honolulu, Milwaukee, Washington and Richmond, Va., for instance, auditors found problems with the handling of more than 70 percent of firearms in evidence. By comparison, offices in El Paso, New Haven and Sacramento turned up error rates in the single digits.

When Sentinel went online, the bureau said it would streamline investigations and make it easier for analysts and agents to “link cases with similar information through expanded search capabilities.” It was also supposed to make information more quickly available to investigators in different field offices.

A report released in September by the Department of Justice inspector general found Sentinel had, over all, reduced the number of lost documents and made it easier to share information. That inquiry, however, cited problems with Sentinel’s search function.

A version of this article appears in print on December 20, 2014, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: F.B.I. Evidence Is Often Mishandled, an Internal Inquiry Finds.

[New York Times source of the above]



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