FRE 901 Chain Of Custody Review: Weight Vs. Admissibility

In possession with intent to distribute cocaine prosecution, admitting packages of cocaine allegedly seized by authorities even though their chain of custody has been broken so that nothing directly linked the substance seized to the cocaine tested by the lab; because gaps in the chain of custody were not so deficient as to preclude rationally finding that the evidence is what the government claims, the evidence was admitted and the weaknesses in the chain of custody go to its weight, in United States v. Rawlins, 606 F.3d 73 (3d Cir. May 26, 2010) (No. 08-2948)

For cases involving drugs, a prosecutor's ability to show a “chain of custody” is a major vehicle for showing that the substances associated with the defendant are prohibited. Without a chain of custody it is often difficult for investigators to prove what in the defendant's possession or control was contraband. After all, a sample of cocaine taken from one defendant probably looks much like any other sample of equivalent size and purpose. A recent Third Circuit case examined an appeal in which found the chain of custody for the charged cocaine had been broken but that this was not fatal to admission of the evidence the trial judge decided. In the case, the circuit quickly updates some of the current approach to broken chains of custody.

In the case, Defendant Rawlins was an air carrier luggage handler in the Virgin Islands. He was arrested for switching tags from legitimate luggage and substituting it for cocaine shipments. Then the defendant would take the legitimate tags and place it on illegal cocaine shipments. After his arrest, the defendant was tried and convicted. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial Court erred by admitting certain packages of cocaine into evidence because the prosecutor failed to establish a sufficient chain of custody showing that the cocaine samples introduced at trial were the same as those seized on arrest.

The circuit affirmed the admission of the cocaine evidence, pointing out how it treated gaps in a chain of custody:

“We have long rejected the proposition that evidence may only be admitted if a 'complete and exclusive' chain of custody is established.... [I]n the ordinary case gaps in the chain go to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility. Furthermore, a trial court's ruling about the adequacy of a chain of custody is afforded great deference. It may not be overturned absent a “clear abuse of discretion.”

Rawlins, 606 F.3d at 83 (citations omitted).

In considering the defendant's challenge to the chain of custody, the circuit indicated that there were problems and that this was undeniable. Yet the evidence would not be excluded based on the following considerations:

“Despite … gaps in the chain of evidence [custody], we cannot say that the District Court erred by admitting that evidence at trial. Our conclusion is driven by two considerations. The first is the deference we owe the District Court in resolving disputes of this nature. … Here, none of the chains at issue was so deficient that there was no 'rational basis' for concluding that the evidence was what the government claimed. The testimony of government witnesses created a 'reasonable probability' that the cocaine packages seized on November 8, February 21, and March 10 were the same materials tested by DEA chemists and introduced at trial. Each chain could-and should-have been far stronger than it was. But any weakness goes to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility.”

“The second consideration is the presumption of regularity in the handling of evidence by law enforcement. 'Absent actual proof of tampering, a trial court may presume regularity in public officials' handling of contraband.'; We employ the same presumption here. No allegation has been made, nor proof offered, of tampering with any of the evidence at issue. Therefore, we presume that the evidence placed in storage was properly transmitted to each of the chemists who testified. The District Court did not err in admitting it.”

Rawlins, 606 F.3d at 85 (citations omitted).

As shown by the Third Circuit in Rawlins, there is no need for a 24-hour watch over the particular evidence to be admitted. All that is required is a showing of reasonableness in holding and identifying the evidence. As in Rawlins, this usually involves the court receiving sufficient testimony by witnesses that would permit a reasonable inference that the object offered is what the proponent claims it is. Notably the Seventh Circuit has a number of cases that stand for a similar proposition, such as:

  • United States v. Prieto, 549 F.3d 513, 525 (7th Cir. 2008) (“True … the government could have done a better job establishing exactly what happened to the packages of drugs before they ended up on the floor of the police garage. For instance, the government did not offer any testimony about what happened to the drug packages removed from the rear bumper … to the time they appeared on the floor of the police garage. Nevertheless, the district court did not err in admitting the exhibits because such in the chain go to the weight of the methamphetamine exhibits rather than their admissibility. Moreover, because no evidence in the record indicated the drugs ever left police custody, the presumption of regularity therefore applies.”)
  • United States v. Tatum, 548 F.3d 584, 587 (7th Cir. 2008) (in cocaine possession trial, chain of custody broken by witnesses who could not recall how they received he alleged drug found; although the chain or custody was imperfect it still sufficed to authenticate the drugs and the gaps went to the weight of the evidence)
  • United States v. King, 356 F.3d 774 (7th Cir. 2004) (noting that any break in he chain of custody from their seizure to their introduction at trial, absent any evidence of tampering did not go to the admission of the drugs, but only to their weight as evidence)

Federal Rules of Evidence