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Chain of Custody: Just Because the Police Found Drugs on You Doesn’t Mean You Get Convicted

If you're facing drug charges, you probably feel like your case is open and shut. But many times, they’re not. Your doom isn’t sealed just because you got caught, and you can give yourself a fighting chance.

The justice system builds in protections for suspects to make sure convictions are legitimate, requiring police to prove drug evidence 1) got found legally, and 2) wasn’t tampered with after arrest.

  • Whether police found drugs legally relates to whether they legally stopped you, searched you, or followed the law of search warrants.
  • Whether drugs didn’t get tampered with often depends on if police can prove who handled the drugs from arrest through trial. This is called chain of custody. Let’s dive deeper into this important defense.  

Why Chain of Custody Is a Vital Defense

Chain of custody protects suspects from a conviction obtained with tampered evidence. But tracing the chain of custody as it winds through officers, evidence technicians, and state chemists requires a skilled eye.

Without a proper chain of custody, drugs don’t come in evidence. That means you win. So if your attorney can show at trial there’s an insufficient chain of custody, your case is dismissed. And problems with the chain can be used to negotiate a plea deal you can live with.

Now let’s look at how it works.

Chain of Custody: The Law

The rules of chain of custody are time-honored law. But like much in the law, it’s not all black and white—there’s plenty of gray. This means you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to guide you through it.

Here’s what the law says, in plain English:

  1. Police must establish a complete chain of custody as far as practicable. “Practicable” is the gray area here. It basically means where multiple people handle the drugs, both their identity and what they did with it must not be left to guess.
  2. Testimony from each handler is not necessarily required to establish a chain of custody.
  3. Where other evidence establishes the identity of the handler and reasonably proves how she handled it, the State proves the chain of custody.
  4. Proof of the chain need not exclude all possibility of tampering, as long as the chain is complete.
  5. Drugs are inadmissible only where there is a missing link in the chain, meaning the identity of all who handled them was not proven as far as possible.

With all that gray, expect a fight over it—and it’s one you can’t win without an experienced legal technician.

Here’s How Chain of Custody Can Work for You, From a Real Case

In a 2018 case called State v. Pulley, the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down a cocaine trafficking conviction due to an improper chain of custody.

Pulley got charged by Officers Craven and Brewer following a traffic stop in Laurens.

Witness testimony was conflicting, and it was unclear what officers did with the cocaine. Here’s a summary of what the State presented at trial.

  1. Officer Craven initially took the cocaine.
  2. But the cocaine was on the hood of Officer Brewer’s car when Craven left the scene.
  3. Brewer initially testified he didn’t take the drugs from the scene.
  4. Craven put the drugs in the police department’s evidence lock box.
  5. The police evidence officer admitted he didn’t get the cocaine from Craven personally, which contradicted a chain of custody report.
  6. No evidence existed to show how the cocaine got from Brewer’s car back to Craven.

The question became whether additional testimony from Brewer cured the problem. The Court ruled it didn’t. The justices noted that when Brewer testified the second time, he said he had reviewed the dash cam video and now remembered taking the drugs from the scene. But that created an even worse problem—the dash cam video didn’t show him taking the drugs away!

The Court overturned the conviction. It noted there’s no requirement for a perfect chain of custody. Then, it dissected the fatal errors of the case: Brewer’s initial denial of handling the cocaine, the “missing link” of how the cocaine got from Brewer’s car to Craven, Brewer’s changed testimony that didn’t help the case for the State, and the State’s failure to produce testimony from Craven showing how he got the cocaine after it was seen on the hood of Brewer’s car. Overall, the Court concluded this left the chain of custody to a guess.

Chain of Custody Is a Moving Target You Need a Trained Eye to Find

As you can see, missing links in the chain of custody can be invisible to the untrained eye. If you’ve got a drug case, the stakes are too high for you to leave to guess whether there’s a missing link in your case. To get your questions answered and schedule a free strategy session to start building your defense, call us at 888-230-1841 to get started. To give yourself a chance, you’ve got to take charge.

 

Rob Usry
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Rob is a South Carolina personal injury and criminal defense lawyer.