In criminal justice, evidence management is the process for the proper collection, processing, maintenance, and protection of evidence that is required in order to maintain the integrity and credibility of the evidence. Requiring precise organization, evidence management involves advanced preservation and care of a variety of materials. It also requires a system of inventory tracking and storage that allows officers, investigators, and independent parties to find easily and accurately the evidence they need. Protocols for proper handling and processing help to prevent accidental contamination or deliberate tampering. Evidence management incorporates a variety of security measures for tracking the individuals who had access to the evidence throughout the lifetime of the evidence from its acquisition to its ultimate disposal.
Appropriate collection of the evidence that is voluntarily surrendered, obtained by seizure, or discovered at a crime scene is the first goal of evidence management. Evidence is property that points to the truth regarding an incident. The usefulness of an item as evidence depends on its being packaged, stored, and maintained in the same condition in which it was found. Containers and packaging materials must be clean, adequately sized, made of paper or plastic, and labeled. Large items are logged on a property report and identified with property tags.
Once evidence has come into the custody of the police, the legal sufficiency of the evidence also depends on the chain of custody. The chain of custody describes every person who had control and custody of an item of evidence along with the times and places where the evidence went. All individuals who handled the evidence must provide their names and badge numbers on custody check-out forms as well as on the seals on the exterior of the evidence packages. Proper evidence management limits the number of persons who handle the evidence.
All evidence warehouses have legal policies and procedures governing the booking of evidence. The evidentiary items must be indexed and described in accordance with the protocols. Some evidence is copied, photographed, or scanned. Digitizing the evidence in this way reduces handling of the original evidence, decreasing the risk of loss, contamination, and tampering.
Another aspect of evidence management is the process of analysis of the evidence using a variety of methods. These include fingerprint collection, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing, and trace and fiber assessment. The processing of evidence must be carried out in controlled or sterile environments, where there is no possibility of accidental exposure or contamination by other evidence. Additionally, as the evidence is processed, its relevance as an item of proof must be evaluated.
Evidence management is crucial to the prosecution of criminal cases. If the evidence is not properly maintained, the outcome of the case is compromised. This can be particularly salient in evidence that requires environmental management, such as items requiring refrigeration or freezing. In addition, valuable or attractive items, such as money, jewelry, and drugs, require high-security storage in locked cabinets with a heightened restriction on access.