No telling what's inside

Lenoir police evidence room a busy place
Sep. 15, 2013 @ 07:26 AM

The contents of classroom-sized area at the Lenoir Police Department changes constantly. About 60 new items come in each week -- mason jars of moonshine, Bibles, guns and ammunition, credit cards, clothing, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, electronics, jewelry, keys, cash, camping equipment, brass knuckles, swords, a gumball machine, urine (yes, urine!) and more. Even a diaper pin.

But it's just temporary storage.

Since January 2006, 22,576 items have been brought in by officers and eventually either destroyed or returned to their rightful owners.

The evidence room deep within the department's inner sanctum has seen it all. But only two people have access to it.

"Only two people have keys to the evidence room, the evidence and back-up evidence technicians," said Capt. Couby Stilwell. "The chief can't even go in there."

Some items collected by officers are not necessarily tied to criminal investigations. A found wallet or abandoned bicycle can find its way into the evidence room. But most is to be used against a person in court in criminal cases.

"Logging and handling evidence is a very important part of our job," said Capt. Brent Phelps. "It's very detail-oriented work. Maintaining the integrity of the evidence is crucial in building a criminal case against a defendant."

An officer at the scene of a crime gathers any evidence that appears to be valuable and seals the items in evidence bags. Once at the police station, the evidence technician weighs each and records it on an evidence property report. Information such as the item model or make, serial number, color and value of the evidence is jotted down, as well as the signature of the collecting officer. The items are then electronically scanned and given a bar code, like a store item, and stored in a bin.

Any time the evidence changes hands, that has to be noted on the report by the evidence handlers in order to maintain the "chain of custody," the chronological documentation of everyone who has come in contact with the evidence. This is vital in criminal cases because any gaps in the chain of custody can cast doubt on the integrity of the evidence, which could cast doubt on the case.

Some evidence, such as blood or DNA swatches, or drug samples, are sent off to the N.C. Crime Lab for testing. In serious cases, such as murder cases, the evidence is hand-delivered and picked up by an officer.

After a criminal case is resolved, a judge orders the evidence to be destroyed or returned to its owner. Items not used in criminal investigations, such as a found wallet, must be returned to their owners or destroyed after 180 days, bicycles after 60 days. Items to be destroyed are placed in 55-gallon drums, sealed and taken to a location in Charlotte, where they are incinerated.