Missing evidence reported by Halifax police could affect trials: lawyer

Halifax police chief Jean-Michel Blais ‘very confident’ drugs and cash were miscatalogued by officers. Photo from CBC.

The Halifax Regional Police are currently undertaking an immense effort to track down thousands of missing items of evidence, which one criminal defence lawyer says has the potential to affect trials.

The massive discrepancy was first uncovered last year, when the force released the Drug Exhibit Audit. It revealed sloppy storage practices, like drug exhibits that had not  been properly sealed in Zip-Lock bags, and a high number of outstanding items.

The audit determined that 24 per cent of exhibits meant to be placed in one of two drug vault couldn’t be located, while 90 per cent of exhibits from the other drug vault were also outstanding. Over half of exhibits – 55 per cent – in the money vault were not where the force’s software system had indicated.  Items listed as destroyed, often were not, and annual audits and inventory weren’t being carried out.

A follow-up review sampled 507 exhibits, 38 of which could not be found, including nearly $5,000 in cash.

According to Chief Jean-Michel Blais 9,792 exhibits have been accounted for, while the department’s records management system catalogued 12,792 exhibits. That leaves a discrepancy of 3,000 outstanding items.

“That’s why we go to the courts, our federal partners, check with federal bank accounts when it comes to money and check with items that most likely were destroyed,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

He explains that the exhibits don’t necessarily always refer to large quantities of drugs and cash, but can include items like hydro bills or drug paraphernalia like marijuana grinders and scales.

Blais maintains that the missing exhibits were not stolen but rather the result of clerical changes and the merging of several neighbouring city police forces over the years.

A Halifax criminal defence lawyer says lost or misplaced evidence certainly has the potential to affect a trial.

Trevor McGuigan says that if the accused has entered a guilty plea before learning the evidence has been lost or destroyed, he or she would have to withdraw their plea and argue to the sentencing judge or an appeal court.

“That can happen but they’d have to satisfy the court that the plea was not fully informed or voluntary and may result in a miscarriage of justice if the plea were not withdrawn,” he says.

If a person facing charges hasn’t pleaded, the missing evidence will have a greater chance of impacting the trial.

If someone is charged with a cocaine-related offence, for example, the Crown has to determine that it is the controlled substance they claim it to be. If that evidence isn’t available, that could prove to be tricky.

“That’s going to be a problem in proving that beyond a reasonable doubt,” he says.

However, if police have seized the substance and taken a sample for analysis, that evidence could still hold in court.

Joe Latta is the executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence, which trains police forces across North American in how to properly handle evidence.

He says the job of police is about keeping communities safer, so handling evidence isn’t necessarily in their suite of skills.

“We may not be qualified to be good keepers of the evidence because our training has been in law enforcement stuff,” he says. “The property room is so different than anything we do in law enforcement. It becomes a struggle, we may not understand all the concepts like accounting procedures and warehousing.”

Latta adds that forces with well-running exhibit spaces are generally run by employees with a background in banking, accounting or warehousing, rather than law enforcement.

A timeline detailing how long it will take to carryout the inventory at the HRP department is expected to be presented to the board of police commissioners within the next month.