Grand jury report says police evidence rooms in disarray

Guns are lying randomly on shelves in evidence rooms at the San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles police departments, and marijuana seized as evidence and no longer needed cannot be destroyed because of delays in paperwork in the District Attorney’s Office, according to a grand jury report.

The observations are among scores made in a highly detailed, 29-page exploration by the grand jury of the way the Sheriff’s Office and the county’s seven police departments handle evidence.

The variation in the way different law enforcement agencies do the job is striking, and those agencies found wanting are in many cases fixing things — in part because the grand jury has been nosing around, according to the report.

Grand jurors placed the different states of individual police department evidence rooms in a larger context — available space, training of officers and the financial commitment of each city toward handling evidence, given shrinking municipal budgets, for example.

County law enforcement agencies cumulatively spend about $700,000 a year in salaries and benefits for staff who maintain evidence rooms, where tens of thousands of items are stored.

One of the grand jury’s recommendations is to consolidate the several property rooms into one countywide locale, as is being considered in San Mateo County. Such a move could save a considerable amount of money, the grand jury hypothesized.

The grand jury’s recommendations are nonbinding.

Grand jurors also weighed local performance against state and national standards — many of which have been adopted, at least in theory, by the agencies in San Luis Obispo County.

Not all agencies faced criticism. Atascadero, Pismo Beach and the Sheriff’s Office drew commendations. And some departments that fell short in one area were doing well in others, according to the report, which was titled “A vital function of the judicial system: law enforcement property and evidence rooms.”

The full report is available at http://slocourts.net/grand_jury/reports.

A closer look at the report

In their report, grand jurors spent considerable time stressing the importance of evidence rooms.

The rooms store not only evidence in criminal cases, but also contraband, property set for destruction and property for safekeeping.

Mishandling any of this, or mismanagement, “can easily lead to court cases not being filed, loss of public confidence ... personnel problems, litigation, and possible financial loss,” they wrote.

It could also interfere with the administration of justice, in the sense that “prosecution or exoneration of a person may be jeopardized,” the grand jury wrote.

Among the many other observations:

The District Attorney’s Office does not have a formal policy governing disposal of evidence. As a result, several agencies complained that they have to hold on to evidence longer than desired.

A primary concern was that storing marijuana occupied excessive space. During its inspections of the Sheriff’s Office, the grand jury also “viewed carts of evidence (not marijuana) waiting for destruction authorization.”

The District Attorney’s Office is working with local departments to set standards for disposing of medical marijuana, the grand jury wrote.

Some “purged” items are auctioned, the exceptions being contraband, drugs, guns and hazardous materials. The “purge rates” range from 20 percent in Arroyo Grande to 87 percent in Atascadero.

At the Paso Robles Police Department, “guns, money, and drugs were piled on top of each other; some guns were stored in evidence boxes, while others, not boxed, were lying on shelves.” The jury noted that Paso Robles had eliminated a full-time position dedicated to staffing its evidence room from its budget.

Because of limited space, the San Luis Obispo Police Department stores its evidence in several different locations. Its evidence rooms “were neat and orderly, with the exception of handgun storage. Numerous handguns were piled on a shelf, limiting the orderly removal of a particular firearm.”

Sheriff Ian Parkinson, who took over the Sheriff’s Office in January 2011, quickly declared the lack of space for evidence handling a “disaster” and made upgrading it a priority. He has secured funding and expects a new facility to be up and running according to established standards by the end of 2012.