Seized Drugs and Firearms:

FBI Needs to Improve Certain Physical Safeguards and Strengthen Accountability

AIMD-00-18: Published: Dec 16, 1999. Publicly Released: Dec 16, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) controls over seized drugs and firearms, focusing on whether the FBI: (1) put in place physical safeguards that if operated effectively would help control access to and use of drug and firearm evidence; and (2) maintained adequate accountability over such evidence.

GAO noted that: (1) physical safeguards over drug and firearm evidence, which include adequate storage facilities and control procedures, are essential for guarding against theft, misuse, and loss of such evidence and securing it for federal prosecutors; (2) each of the four FBI offices GAO reviewed established physical safeguards in accordance with key FBI policy provisions that if operated effectively would help control access to and use of drug and firearm evidence; however, overcrowding and inadequate packaging of drug evidence and improper maintenance of the night depository in the drug vault at one field office increased the potential for theft, misuse, and loss of evidence at that location; (3) in some cases firearms were not certified as rendered safe in accordance with FBI policy; (4) the most recent FBI internal inspections identified similar findings involving the improper storage of drug evidence, inadequate ventilation in drug vaults, and the lack of documentation certifying that firearms were rendered safe, as well as weaknesses in physical access controls; (5) the FBI's ability to account for drug and firearm evidence was hampered by incomplete and missing information on chain of custody documents, failure to promptly issue and reconcile reports used to verify the location of evidence, and inadequate documentation for certain bulk drug seizures; evidence control personnel, however, were able to locate each item selected for GAO's testing that was in storage at the field offices, and for those items not in storage, they provided documentation supporting the location or status of the item; (6) timely data entry and data verification are key control procedures that help ensure data records are complete and accurate; however, GAO identified several instances where evidence control personnel or agents entered evidence into the FBI's Automated Case Support (ACS) system late without the required explanatory memoranda; (7) there were discrepancies between information recorded in the ACS system and information on written documents associated with the evidence; (8) there were numerous discrepancies between the actual weight of drug items and the weight recorded on attached evidence labels; and (9) the FBI's ability to account for drug evidence was hindered by the lack of policies and procedures on how to identify and address significant weight variances.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, in 2003, it completed renovations of the drug vaults in its field offices by installing a ventilation system in the Dallas field office's existing drug vault and moving the New York and San Diego field offices' drug vaults to larger, adequately ventilated areas. By improving the ventilation in these drug vaults, the FBI has taken appropriate steps to promote a safe and healthy environment for its evidence control personnel.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding adequate exterior ventilation being afforded to all drug vaults.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, it has taken steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing policies by advising its field offices to ensure compliance with all policies and guidance related to the proper storage of firearm evidence. At the New York Field Office, for example, the FBI stated that a firearms instructor must now ensure a firearm is rendered safe and verify his/her inspection on chain of custody documents attached to the weapon. In addition, prior to being issued a control number in the evidence control system, the name of the firearms instructor and the date of the firearm inspection must be entered into the database, thus providing an electronic record of the inspection. The FBI's Evidence Program Manager also sent a memo to all ECTs reminding them of the importance of adhering to evidence policy, citing specific examples including not accepting a weapon unless it has been rendered safe by a firearms instructor and so documented on the lower left hand corner of the chain of custody.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding rendering firearms safe, including having a firearms instructor sign and date the certification on the chain of custody prior to evidence control personnel accepting the firearm for storage.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, it has taken steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing policies by advising its field offices to ensure compliance with all policies and guidance related to the proper storage of evidence. With regard to the chain of custody forms, the FBI stated, for example, that the Dallas Field Office form has been modified to include a place for the bar code and file/exhibit numbers. In addition, it stated that the New York Field Office has physically examined each drug item to ensure the documentation includes a bar code, case number, exhibit number, appropriate signatures, and date/time of entry and that proper chain of custody documents are attached to the evidence. The FBI's Evidence Program Manager also sent a memo to all ECTs reminding them of the importance of adhering to evidence policy, citing specific examples including that all evidence in evidence control rooms is to be properly bar coded.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General should require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding written chain of custody forms always including a barcode number or case number and exhibit number; a signature; and the date, time and reason for custody transfer of evidence from one party to another.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The FBI stated it has taken steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing policies by advising its field offices to ensure compliance with all policies and guidance related to the proper storage of evidence. The FBI's Evidence Program Manager sent a memo to all ECTs reminding them of the importance of adhering to Evidence Policy, including a specific reminder to run Charge-Out Reports periodically according to evidence policy.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding Charge-Out Reports being prepared and reconciled at intervals required by policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, it has taken steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing policies by advising its field offices to ensure compliance with all policies and guidance related to the proper storage of drug evidence, including bulk seizures. In Miami, for example, the FBI stated that agents are reminded periodically during squad meetings to adhere to policies requiring written notification of bulk seizures to the U.S. Attorney within five workdays and the photographing of bulk seizures. In addition, the FBI stated that Miami has also established a file for paperwork supporting the destruction of drug evidence, which is maintained by the Drug Program Coordinator. In the New York Field Office, inventory receipts, prepared and provided to the Assistant U.S. Attorney for all drugs seized as part of a search or arrest warrant, are used to meet the written notification requirement. The New York office also maintains detailed records of the destruction of all drug evidence. For example, following GAO's review, to document the destruction of over 4,000 pounds of drug evidence, the Audio Visual Unit of the New York Field office videotaped the entire activity and a 25 page document was prepared to memorialize the destruction of the evidence.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding field office personnel, in accordance with requirements set forth in policy, preparing and sending written notification of bulk drug seizures to the U.S. Attorney within 5 workdays of the seizure, preparing and maintaining documentary evidence supporting the destruction of drug evidence, and taking adequate photographs of bulk seizures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, it has taken steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing policies by advising its field offices to ensure compliance with all policies and guidance related to the proper storage of drug and firearm evidence. For example, the FBI stated that the Dallas Field Office policy has been revised to ensure that all evidence is received and entered into the ACS system within the mandated timeframe. Evidence received late requires an explanatory electronic communication, approved by the Agent's supervisor, before the evidence is placed into the custody of the evidence control technician. Recurring late entries are reviewed under the newly imposed field office self-inspection process. In addition, the FBI's Evidence Program Manager sent a memo to all ECTs reminding them of the importance of adhering to evidence policy, citing specific examples including not accepting evidence that is submitted beyond the 10 day timeframe unless the evidence is accompanied by an approved, serialized explanatory memorandum.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding drug and firearm evidence being entered into the ACS system within established timeframes or, for evidence entered after the timeframe allowed by FBI policy, proper documentation explaining that the late data entry was completed by evidence control personnel or agents and was reviewed by appropriate supervisory officials.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, it has taken steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing policies by advising its field offices to ensure compliance with all policies and guidance related to the proper storage of drug evidence. For example, the FBI stated that the Miami Field Office evidence control technicians have been instructed to weigh all drug evidence to include the original container and packaging material being entered into the drug vault and to enter that weight into the designated field in the ACS system. According to the FBI, drugs seized in the New York and Dallas Field Offices are also now weighed, including the original container and any packaging material used to seal the evidence.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding field office personnel weighing seized drugs in accordance with FBI policy, with the weight to include the original container and any packaging material used to seal the evidence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, the New York Field Office was reinspected in September 1999 and the office had relocated the drug vault to a larger facility, resealed and repackaged every drug item and addressed issues regarding the night depository. As a result of the reinspection, additional instructions were issued to further assist that office in ensuring full compliance with all evidence policies and procedures. The additional instructions, which included (1) ensuring proper documentation is generated for all drug evidence retained in closed cases and (2) establishing a regular and systematic method for identifying drug evidence eligible for disposal, have been addressed by the New York Field Office. For example, the Administrative Officer is now responsible for notifying the Special Agent in Charge, on a semi-annual basis, of any drug evidence maintained without appropriate documentation. In addition, New York established an annual tickler for inventories of the Drug Vault to be conducted during September of each year to ensure drugs are identified for disposal in a timely manner.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require the Director of the FBI review actions taken by the New York Field Office to determine if such actions will adequately alleviate the overcrowded conditions in the drug vault; ensure that all drug items in storage are properly packaged, sealed, and labeled; and ensure that the contents of the night depository are routinely removed in accordance with FBI policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, it has reviewed its existing policy and considers the current procedures for verifying evidence information entered into the ACS system to be adequate.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI review existing policy to determine whether current procedures for verifying evidence information entered into the ACS system are adequate, or if the policy should be modified to include additional procedures to enhance the FBI's ability to detect and prevent data entry errors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  10. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to an FBI official, there are requirements for properly weighing drugs on a scale; however, the FBI does not have a policy for requiring that scales be calibrated regularly. The official stated that she was not aware of any draft or proposed revision of their administrative policies to address (1) a requirement for regularly calibrating scales,(2) maintaining documentation of the scale calibration in the Evidence Control File, or (3) requiring all bulk seizures be weighed on properly calibrated scales.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI modify existing FBI policy to include a requirement to weigh all seized drugs, including bulk seizures, on properly calibrated scales.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  11. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The FBI has revised its policy manual to include procedures for identifying and accounting for significant weight discrepancies in drug evidence. The policy provides the definition of a significant weight discrepancy, techniques for identifying such discrepancies, and documentation and notification requirements for discrepancies detected during a review of drug evidence.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI modify existing FBI policy to include guidance establishing thresholds for defining significant weight discrepancies of drug evidence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  12. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The FBI has revised its policy manual to include procedures for identifying and accounting for significant weight discrepancies in drug evidence. The policy provides the definition of a significant weight discrepancy, techniques for identifying such discrepancies, and documentation and notification requirements for discrepancies detected during a review of drug evidence.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI modify existing FBI policy to include procedures for identifying and addressing such discrepancies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  13. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the FBI, it has taken steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing policies by advising its field offices to ensure compliance with all policies and guidance related to the proper storage of drug evidence. The FBI stated that individual FBI field offices provided additional instructions/training to their evidence control technicians (ECTs). For example, the Miami Field Office instructed its ECTs not to accept drug evidence unless it is sealed and labeled in accordance with FBI policy. In the New York Field Office, personnel in the Operations Center are now charged with ensuring compliance with procedures that require careful examination of new drug evidence by a trained evidence control technician, including documentation of the examination to ensure accountability. In addition, the FBI's Evidence Program Manager sent a memo to all ECTs reminding them of the importance of adhering to evidence policy, citing specific examples including not accepting drugs unless they have been properly sealed and are accompanied by appropriate documentation.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI take the appropriate steps to reinforce FBI field offices' adherence to existing FBI policies regarding handling and storage of drug evidence, including sealing drug items in accordance with FBI policy using appropriate labeling procedures and storing evidence in an orderly manner to avoid damage to stored items.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  14. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to an FBI official, the FBI's Automated Case Support (ACS) system has not been updated to reflect identified changes in the weight of drug evidence. Furthermore, this official stated that she was not aware of any plans to revise existing FBI policy to include guidance for updating records in the ACS system to reflect identified changes in the weight of drug evidence.

    Recommendation: GAO recommends that the Attorney General require that the Director of the FBI modify existing FBI policy to include guidance for updating records in the ACS system to reflect identified changes in the weight of drug evidence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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