oversight

Seized Drugs and Weapons: DEA Needs to Improve Certain Physical Safeguards and Strengthen Accountability

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-11-30.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to the Attorney General




November 1999
                 SEIZED DRUGS AND
                 WEAPONS

                 DEA Needs to
                 Improve Certain
                 Physical Safeguards
                 and Strengthen
                 Accountability




GAO/AIMD-00-17
Contents



Letter                                                                                  3


Appendixes   Appendix I:   Scope and Methodology                                       28
             Appendix II: Comments From the Drug Enforcement
               Administration                                                          31


Tables       Table 1: Seized Drug Activity for the Year Ended September 30, 1998        8




             Abbreviations

             AAPC       Accounting and Auditing Policy Committee
             ATF        Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
             DEA        Drug Enforcement Administration
             DOJ        Department of Justice
             FASAB      Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board
             FBI        Federal Bureau of Investigation
             JFMIP      Joint Financial Management Improvement Program
             NEDS       Non-Drug Evidence System
             OIG        Office of Inspector General
             SFFAS      Statement of Federal Financial Accounting Standard
             STRIDE     System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence



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Page 2   GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
United States General Accounting Office                                                   Accounting and Information
Washington, D.C. 20548                                                                         Management Division



                                    B-283521                                                                                    Leter




                                    November 30, 1999

                                    The Honorable Janet Reno
                                    The Attorney General

                                    Dear Madam Attorney General:

                                    Since 1990, we have periodically reported on government operations that
                                    we have identified as “high risk” because of their greater vulnerabilities to
                                    waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. One of these operations is the
                                    asset forfeiture program operated by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
                                    As we reported in January 1999, although some improvements have been
                                    made to the program since we first designated it as a high-risk program in
                                    1990, significant problems remain and continued oversight is necessary to
                                    ensure that policies and procedures are followed and that adequate
                                    safeguards are in place.1

                                    Related to asset forfeiture, DOJ operations often involve the seizure,
                                    custody, and disposition of evidence that is used by federal prosecutors.
                                    A critical support function is controlling evidence to help ensure that
                                    federal cases are not compromised or weakened by challenges made by the
                                    defense about the existence, completeness, or handling of evidence, or its
                                    ties to defendants. Seized property, including items such as drugs and
                                    weapons, are subject to forfeiture and typically remain in the custody of
                                    the seizing agency until they are approved for final disposition. In fiscal
                                    year 1998, DOJ’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that its
                                    agents seized over 275,000 kilograms2 of illegal drugs.

                                    This report focuses on DEA’s controls over seized drugs and weapons.
                                    There is an inherent risk of theft, misuse, and loss of drugs and weapons
                                    due to the fact that such evidence typically has a market or “street” value.
                                    In addition, evidence can remain in DEA custody for significant amounts of
                                    time due to long-term investigations. Another factor increasing the risk is
                                    changes in the custody of the evidence as DEA often conducts its

                                    1
                                     Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of Justice
                                    (GAO/OCG-99-10, January 1999).
                                    2
                                     One kilogram equals 1,000 grams and is the equivalent of approximately 2.2 pounds. About
                                    453.6 grams is the equivalent of 1 pound.




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operations with other law enforcement agencies, which can result in
evidence being transferred from one agency to another.

Given this inherent risk, our audit objectives were to determine whether
DEA (1) put in place physical safeguards to control access to and use of
drug and weapon evidence and (2) maintained adequate accountability
over such evidence. To accomplish these objectives, we interviewed
officials from DEA headquarters and selected division offices and
laboratories concerning various aspects of the seizure, storage, and
disposal of seized drugs and weapons. We reviewed DEA’s Laboratory
Operations Manual and Agents Manual for policies and procedures
pertaining to the processes used to seize, account for, safeguard, and
dispose of drugs and weapons. Based on documentation provided by DEA
headquarters, we selected four division offices and corresponding
laboratories with large volumes of drug seizure activity–Dallas, Texas
(South Central Laboratory); Miami, Florida (Southeast Laboratory);
New York, New York (Northeast Laboratory); and San Diego, California
(Southwest Laboratory)–to perform testing of these policies and
procedures.

To determine if issues we identified at the four selected division offices and
laboratories are indicative of more systemic concerns, we (1) reviewed
reports issued by DOJ’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) related to
laboratory operations3 and (2) requested and reviewed a copy of the
sections of the most recent DEA internal inspection reports for 20 of DEA’s
21 division offices4 and for the 8 laboratories that cover procedures and
internal controls related to seized drugs and weapons. These inspections
were performed from March 1996 through August 1998. Because we
received the sections of the internal inspection reports near the end of our
fieldwork, we did not follow-up with the division offices or laboratories to
determine the extent to which noted deficiencies had been corrected.
According to DEA officials, the reported deficiencies have been addressed;
however, as noted throughout this report, we identified instances where
weaknesses similar to those included in the internal inspection reports
existed at the locations we visited.



3
 Drug Enforcement Administration’s Laboratory Operations (DOJ OIG, 95-18, May 1995) and
Retention of Drug Evidence in Drug Enforcement Administration Laboratories (DOJ OIG,
I-96-02, February 1996).
4
The El Paso Division Office was established after the completion of our fieldwork.




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                   We performed our work in accordance with generally accepted government
                   auditing standards from August 1998 through August 1999. See appendix I
                   for a more detailed discussion of our scope and methodology. We requested
                   written comments on a draft of this report from the Attorney General or her
                   designee. The Acting DEA Administrator provided written comments
                   which are discussed in the “Agency Comments and Our Evaluation” section
                   of this report and reprinted in appendix II. DEA also provided technical
                   suggestions or supplemental information that we took into consideration
                   while finalizing our report.



Results in Brief   Physical safeguards over drug and weapon 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. Each of the four laboratories and division offices we
                   visited had physical safeguards in place, that, if operated effectively, would
                   help control access to and use of drug and weapon evidence. However, we
                   found instances of inadequate packaging of drug and weapon evidence and
                   overcrowded drug vaults that could increase the potential for theft, misuse,
                   and loss. Further, we found that certain requirements, such as chemists
                   returning drug evidence to the vault within 5 working days after analysis
                   and laboratories destroying drugs within 90 days of receiving authorization
                   to destroy, were not always met. Similar issues were reported in the
                   internal inspection reports provided to us by DEA that covered DEA
                   inspections performed from March 1996 through August 1998.

                   Drug and weapon evidence must also be accounted for completely,
                   accurately, and promptly to help ensure that such evidence is not
                   compromised for federal prosecution purposes and is protected against the
                   risk of theft, misuse, or loss. Based on our visits to four selected DEA
                   laboratories and division offices, we found weaknesses related to DEA’s
                   accountability over drug and weapon evidence. The weaknesses included
                   (1) incomplete and missing drug evidence documentation, including chain
                   of custody documentation, (2) inaccurate recordkeeping of drug and
                   weapon evidence, and (3) improper accounting for drug weights, including
                   unverified and unexplained weight differences in drug exhibits. For
                   example, DEA policy requires that chemists verify the weight of drug
                   evidence against the weight reported by the submitting agent upon receipt
                   of the evidence and obtain a witness’ verification if a difference above a
                   certain threshold exists. For 28 of the 86 drug exhibits we reviewed that
                   had weight discrepancies above the threshold set forth in DEA’s policy,




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             chemists did not obtain the appropriate verification before opening and
             analyzing the evidence.

             DEA’s internal inspection teams also reported instances of missing
             documentation and improper recordkeeping in their reports covering
             inspections performed from March 1996 through August 1998.
             Notwithstanding these problems, DEA officials at the four laboratories and
             division offices we visited were able to locate each item selected for our
             testing that was in storage in evidence vaults or warehouses, and for those
             items not in storage, they provided documentation supporting the current
             location or the status of the item. We are making recommendations to
             address the above issues.

             In commenting on this report, DEA concurred that the accountability and
             safeguarding of evidence is of critical importance and said it will take the
             appropriate steps to reinforce its adherence to existing policies or to
             implement new policies relating to 11 of our 12 recommendations.
             However, DEA stated that issues identified in the report do not appear to
             be systemic weaknesses and were found in areas where redundant controls
             are in place to ensure the integrity of evidence is maintained at all time. We
             disagree with DEA and, as discussed in this report, identified several issues
             which we consider to be of a more severe nature at all, or almost all, of the
             locations that we visited and for which redundant controls did not exist to
             compensate for the deficiencies. In addition, DEA officials indicated that
             the reported deficiencies identified by their internal inspections performed
             prior to our review had been addressed. However, as noted throughout this
             report, we identified weaknesses that were the same or similar to ones
             identified during DEA’s internal inspections.

             Further, in several comments related to the significance of certain
             discrepancies, DEA stated that all exhibits of drug evidence examined by
             GAO were found to be in a sealed condition. However, certain conditions
             identified by us during our testing and included in this report diminish the
             effectiveness of DEA’s sealing of evidence procedures.



Background   DEA plays a leading role in combating the production and distribution of
             illegal drugs. Under DOJ, DEA’s mission is to enforce controlled substance
             laws and bring individuals and organizations that violate these laws into the
             justice system. To carry out its mission, DEA operates 21 domestic division
             offices and 77 foreign offices in 56 different countries. DEA also has eight
             laboratories located throughout the country, that conduct drug analyses for



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DEA and other law enforcement agencies and maintain thousands of
exhibits from investigations.

In fiscal year 1998, DEA reported that its agents seized over 275,000
kilograms of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin (see table 1)
and approximately 280,000 kilograms were maintained at DEA facilities as
of September 30, 1998.5 When drug evidence is seized, the agent maintains
custody of the drugs until sending them either via mail or hand delivery to
the laboratory for testing. Agents seal, label, and weigh the drug evidence,
as well as assign consecutive exhibit numbers to such evidence acquired
under a given case number. All drug evidence seized in DEA-controlled
investigations must be submitted to a DEA laboratory for safekeeping and
analysis. If the seizure involves over 10 kilograms of marijuana, only a
sample amount is sent to the laboratory, with the remainder being stored in
a secured area by the division offices. For large “bulk” narcotics seizures,
DEA informs the appropriate U.S. Attorney’s Office in writing within 5 days
that amounts above a certain threshold will be destroyed after 60 days from
the date notice is provided of the seizure, unless a written request not to
destroy the excess is received.6




5
 DEA employees are drug tested before they are hired and are subject to additional random
drug testing during employment at DEA.
6
 Drug seizures over certain threshold amounts are considered “bulk” seizures. Bulk seizure
thresholds vary depending on the type of drug. For example, the threshold amount for
heroin is 2 kilograms, while the threshold for cocaine is 10 kilograms. The U.S. Attorney’s
Office may request keeping amounts in excess of the threshold if it believes possession of
the drugs may affect the legal proceedings.




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Table 1: Seized Drug Activity for the Year Ended September 30, 1998
(in kilograms)
                                    Beginning                                             Ending
Drug type                             balance         Additions         Deletions        balance
Marijuana                                29,536          239,515          195,288          73,763
Cocaine                                196,722            31,649           38,704        189,667
Heroin                                    1,989              364               687          1,666
Methamphetamine                           3,857            1,217               771          4,303
Other                                   10,991             3,377            4,630          9,738
Total                                  243,095           276,122          240,080        279,137


Source: Aggregate figures for bulk and nonbulk drugs from DEA’s Annual Financial Statement Fiscal
Year 1998.

Drug evidence may change hands several times from seizure to disposition,
particularly if another agency is involved or if the evidence is presented in
court. Upon receipt at the laboratory, an evidence technician takes custody
of the drugs, verifies that the seals are intact, assigns each exhibit a
laboratory identification number, and stores it in a vault for safekeeping.
The evidence technician also enters the receipt of the drug evidence into
DEA’s Laboratory Evidence Management System, which produces a bar
code to be used for inventory purposes. Within 3 days of receipt,
information about the evidence is also required to be entered into DEA’s
drug database, the System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence
(STRIDE). STRIDE is used to track evidence submitted to the laboratories
from receipt to destruction and for statistical purposes. Supervisors assign
the exhibits to specific chemists for analysis. Chemists then check out the
drugs from the vault, verify that the seals are intact, weigh and analyze the
drug evidence, and then return it to the vault. The results of the analysis are
required to be documented on a forensic chemist worksheet (DEA 86).
DEA policy states that evidence should normally be returned to the vault
within 5 working days after the analysis report is prepared. After analysis,
STRIDE is updated to reflect the test results.

Evidence received from other agencies, such as the U.S. Customs Service
(Customs) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is returned to that
agency after DEA has completed its analysis. DEA drug evidence remains
stored in the laboratory’s vault until the laboratory director receives
approval from the division office for destruction. Upon receiving approval




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                       for destruction, DEA policy requires that the drugs be disposed of within 90
                       days. Drugs are disposed of periodically at a commercial incinerator.

                       Agents also seize weapons, including rifles, handguns, knives, and
                       ammunition and maintain them in vaults within division and field offices.
                       An evidence technician takes custody of the weapons from the seizing
                       agent and enters the receipt into DEA’s Non-Drug Evidence System
                       (NEDS), which produces a bar code for inventory purposes. Weapons are
                       maintained in a vault until destroyed, forfeited, transferred to another
                       agency, or returned to the owner.7

                       To help ensure that policies and procedures are followed and that evidence
                       is properly safeguarded and accounted for, the DEA Office of Inspections
                       and the Office of Forensic Sciences performs internal inspections at each
                       laboratory and division office approximately every 24 months. These
                       inspections include a review of field operations including those pertaining
                       to safeguarding and accounting for drug and weapon evidence. After the
                       completion of the inspection, a report detailing the findings and
                       recommendations is issued to division or laboratory management, which
                       must then submit a memorandum to the Chief Inspector within 90 days of
                       issuance, noting any corrective actions completed or planned. The reports
                       remain open until all corrective actions are completed.



DEA Needs to Improve   Physical safeguards, which include adequate storage facilities and
                       procedures, are needed to reduce the risk of theft, misuse, or loss of drug
Safeguarding of Drug   and weapon evidence and help ensure that evidence is not compromised
and Weapon Evidence    for prosecution purposes. In addition, physical safeguards can promote a
                       safe working environment for DEA personnel. The four laboratories and
                       division offices included in our review have physical safeguards in place
                       that if operating properly help control access to and use of drug and
                       weapon evidence. However, we identified some weaknesses, including
                       storage problems, which could affect DEA’s ability to properly safeguard
                       drug and weapon evidence. In addition, we found that certain required
                       procedures involving drug evidence were not met. DEA’s internal
                       inspection reports noted similar weaknesses in the safeguarding of drug
                       evidence.


                       7
                        Return of a firearm to the owner can take place only if the party receiving the firearm may
                       legally own a firearm and ownership of such type of firearm is not prohibited by law.




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Physical Safeguards    DEA’s evidence vaults and other designated secure areas used to store drug
                       and nondrug evidence must meet certain requirements as established by
                       DEA, DOJ, and the General Services Administration. The requirements
                       include construction specifications and standards for locks, locking
                       devices, and access control systems. At each of the four laboratories and
                       division offices, we observed the location and condition of evidence vaults
                       and other designated secure areas and noted that drug and nondrug
                       evidence was segregated in separate areas as required by DEA policy. We
                       also observed physical safeguards, including cameras, motion detectors,
                       and combination locks that are in place to control and monitor access to
                       and use of drug and weapon evidence. However, due to the sensitive nature
                       of the evidence, we did not perform any comprehensive tests to verify the
                       operation of the specific physical safeguards because we did not want to
                       risk compromising any of the evidence that may be needed for prosecution
                       purposes. For example, while we observed employees entering keypad
                       access codes to obtain entry, we did not attempt to obtain unauthorized
                       entry into controlled areas.

                       Based on our visits to the four selected locations and our review of DEA’s
                       internal inspection reports, we noted some weaknesses with DEA’s
                       physical safeguards. Specifically, at the South Central Laboratory in Dallas,
                       we were informed that two cameras inside the drug evidence vault, which
                       monitor vault activity, were not operational. In addition, DEA’s policy
                       allows for short-term storage of bulk seizures in detention cells; however,
                       we noted that the Dallas Division Office was using a detention cell for long-
                       term storage for bulk marijuana. In one example, three boxes of marijuana
                       were stored in the detention cell from May 1996 until January 1998. Also,
                       the internal inspection report for the Northeast Laboratory in New York
                       indicated that a vault alarm system had not functioned properly for several
                       years. An official at DEA headquarters indicated that the inspection report
                       did not clearly state the problem and that the alarm was working properly
                       but was not connected to the division office alarm system as required. The
                       official indicated that the alarm was subsequently fixed. To confirm this,
                       we asked for the more recent inspection report for this laboratory, but as of
                       the completion of our fieldwork, it had not been provided to us.


Storage of Drugs and   During our visits to drug and weapon evidence vaults at the laboratories
Weapons                and division offices, we noted instances of improperly stored evidence. For
                       example, at the laboratories, we noted evidence packaging that was
                       deteriorating and overcrowded evidence vaults. At the division offices, we




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also noted improperly sealed weapons. Weaknesses such as these have
previously been reported by the DOJ OIG and by DEA’s inspection teams.

Unsealed and damaged evidence packaging and overcrowded evidence
vaults increase the potential for theft, misuse, and loss of evidence and that
such evidence could be compromised for federal prosecution purposes.
Due to space constraints in the drug evidence vaults at two of the four
laboratories we visited, we observed boxes that had been stacked on the
floor such that the lower boxes were being crushed. As the DOJ OIG
reported in 1996, the storage of exhibits on vault floor space is not
recommended because “cluttered vault aisles can be hazardous and make
retrieving and accounting for exhibits more cumbersome and time-
consuming.” In 1995, the DOJ OIG also reported that the vault storage
space was insufficient at the same two laboratories where we noted
overcrowding.

We also observed exhibits where the packaging or the tape used to seal
boxes was deteriorating or had already deteriorated to the point that the
box was open, increasing the potential for access to the contents. For
example, at one location, we observed a punctured evidence bag
containing approximately 2 kilograms of heroin. At another location, we
observed a cocaine exhibit for which the gross weight after analysis was
unknown (i.e., not recorded on the box, in the file, or in STRIDE), being
stored in a box that was in poor condition. Officials agreed that such items
should be repackaged. At the bulk marijuana warehouse maintained by the
New York Division Office, we observed that several bags of a 9,000-pound
seizure were worn, increasing the potential for access to the contents.

An internal inspection report for one laboratory, not included in our review,
also identified improperly stored drugs. Specifically, the internal inspection
found that the laboratory had stored drug and nondrug evidence within the
same vault, which is not in compliance with DEA policy. Also, the
inspection teams identified one resident office, a smaller office within a
division office, that did not have an overnight drop safe to store seized
drugs, as required by DEA policy.

For safety purposes, DEA policy requires that firearms be carefully
unloaded by the agent most familiar with the weapon and sealed in an
evidence bag. While conducting our inventory testing of 78 weapons, we
observed two handguns that had not been sealed in evidence bags as
required. We also observed one seizure of knives that had not been sealed
properly. Specifically, the knives were stored within a zipper bag that could



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                         be easily opened. Weapons that are not sealed properly can create unsafe
                         conditions for DEA personnel, as well as for others who may require access
                         to the evidence.

                         We noted that, while not required by DEA policy, but similar to a Bureau of
                         Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) policy, many of the handguns we
                         observed had a plastic strip inserted through the chamber, further
                         rendering the firearm safe.8 In addition, unlike FBI policy, DEA’s policy
                         does not require written certification from a firearm instructor ensuring
                         that the firearm has been rendered safe.9 Although DEA agents are not
                         required to take these additional steps, formalizing such requirements
                         would provide further safeguards that firearms are rendered safe.


Timeliness of the        The DOJ OIG reported in 1995 that chemists took an average of 15 days to
Performance of Certain   return exhibits to the vault after analysis and indicated that even taking 7
                         days appeared to be excessive. Based on an OIG recommendation, DEA
Required Actions
                         policy was revised to require that drug evidence normally be returned to
                         the vault within 5 working days after analysis. During our visits to four
                         selected laboratories, we found that for 20 of the 216 laboratory items we
                         selected, where the chemists had completed their analysis and prepared
                         the related report, the chemists had retained evidence for an average of 10
                         working days. Seventeen of the 20 cases occurred at the South Central
                         Laboratory in Dallas, and in one instance, the chemist maintained an
                         exhibit for 34 working days. A laboratory official could not explain why this
                         exhibit was not returned promptly. Promptly returning evidence to the
                         vault ensures that the chemists do not maintain evidence for excessive
                         amounts of time in an area more accessible than the vault.

                         DEA policy also requires that drug evidence be destroyed within 90 days of
                         receiving approval to do so from the division office. We found that 1 of 16
                         exhibits we tested, which were being maintained by the laboratory and had
                         been approved for destruction, had not been destroyed within the 90 days
                         required by DEA policy. This exhibit had been authorized for destruction
                         but was not destroyed until over 5 months after approval was obtained.
                         Timely destruction of drugs authorized to be destroyed conserves limited

                         8
                          ATF requires plastic tie wraps to be inserted through the chamber prior to storage of all
                         firearms, including handguns and rifles.
                         9
                          FBI policy requires that a firearm instructor certify in writing that seized firearms are
                         rendered safe prior to transferring custody to an evidence custodian.




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                      vault space, allows agents to close the related case files promptly, and
                      eliminates the additional inherent risk of theft of these drugs that are no
                      longer needed as evidence.

                      According to DEA policy, DEA has 5 days in which to notify the U.S.
                      Attorney’s Office that amounts above certain thresholds for bulk seizures
                      will be destroyed after 60 days from the notification date unless a letter
                      requesting DEA to maintain the drugs is received from the U.S. Attorney’s
                      Office. The letters notifying the U.S. Attorney’s Office of DEA’s intent to
                      destroy the amounts above certain thresholds and the response letters
                      from the U.S. Attorney’s Office with justification for not destroying these
                      amounts were not provided for two of the five exhibits we tested in which
                      letters should have been included in the file. In another instance, the U.S.
                      Attorney’s Office had been notified; however, the 60-day deadline passed in
                      February 1998 and the evidence had not yet been destroyed as of our visit
                      in October 1998. Ensuring that U.S. Attorney’s Offices are promptly notified
                      and that responses are received from them for not destroying evidence
                      needed for prosecution purposes allows DEA to quickly destroy unneeded
                      evidence and conserve limited vault space.

                      Internal inspection reports identified similar deficiencies at 3 of the
                      8 laboratories, which include the Southeast and Northeast Laboratories,
                      and at 4 of the 20 division offices, which include the Dallas and New York
                      Division Offices. For example, one laboratory, not included in our review,
                      was not always destroying evidence within the required 90 days after
                      notification that the seized item was approved for destruction. Other
                      examples included chemists not returning exhibits to the vault within the
                      5 working day time frame, and seized drugs being stored in a temporary
                      overnight storage location for over 1 year.



Accountability Over   We identified weaknesses over the accountability of drug and weapon
                      evidence that could increase the potential for theft, misuse, or loss of such
Drug and Weapon       evidence, and that such evidence could be compromised for federal
Evidence Needs        prosecution purposes. Although the division offices and laboratories had
                      policies and procedures designed to ensure accountability over drug
Strengthening         evidence, they did not always follow them. During our visits, we noted
                      (1) incomplete and missing documentation over drug evidence, including
                      chain of custody documentation, (2) weaknesses in recordkeeping of drug
                      and weapon evidence, and (3) weaknesses in accounting for drug weights,
                      including unverified and unexplained weight differences in drug exhibits.
                      Notwithstanding these problems, evidence control personnel at the four



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                            laboratories and division offices we visited were able to locate each item
                            selected for our testing that was in storage in evidence vaults or other
                            secure areas, and for those items not in storage, they provided
                            documentation supporting the current location or status of the item. For
                            example, if the exhibit had previously been destroyed, we were provided a
                            copy of the DEA form authorizing the destruction and showing signatures
                            of the DEA personnel who witnessed the destruction.


Maintaining Documentation   During our testing, we identified laboratory and evidence custodian files
                            that were missing documentation, including chain of custody
                            documentation, or contained incomplete documentation. We also identified
                            evidence labels that were missing witness signatures. DEA policy requires
                            that complete and accurate documentation, such as the Report of Drug
                            Property Collected, Purchased, or Seized (DEA 7), forensic chemist
                            worksheets (DEA 86), and forms (DEA 12) used to transfer evidence to
                            other parties (e.g., court, another federal agency), be maintained in the
                            seizure files. These forms, along with evidence accountability records
                            (DEA 307) maintained in a separate area within the vault, are used to
                            document transfers of evidence and provide a chain of custody for the
                            evidence. For bulk seizures, the laboratory files must also contain
                            photographs of bulk seizures submitted to the laboratory. Photographs
                            provide visible proof of the evidence in the event that drugs over certain
                            threshold amounts are destroyed. In addition, DEA policy requires that two
                            agents be involved in the seizure and sealing of evidence and that they both
                            sign an evidence label. Having a witness to the seizure and the sealing of
                            critical evidence is important to prevent any one individual from having
                            uncontrolled access to evidence.

                            Upon receipt of evidence at the laboratory, the evidence custodian is
                            required to sign the DEA 7, which is prepared by the submitting agent,
                            accepting receipt of the evidence. The evidence custodian is not required to
                            reweigh the evidence, but must examine the seals and check a box on the
                            form indicating whether the evidence seals are intact. We found substantial
                            compliance with the policy, but noted a few exceptions. For example, 3 of
                            the 236 DEA 7s we reviewed were missing the checkmark indicating
                            whether the seals were intact and one was missing the evidence custodian’s
                            signature. The internal inspection report for one division office, which was




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not included in our review, stated that numerous deficiencies were noted in
documenting the chain of custody on the DEA 7 form.10

DEA 86s are used by chemists to record all raw data, observations, and
calculations regarding their analysis of drug evidence. They are also used
to document which chemist received the evidence, whom the evidence is
physically received from, and gross weights before and after analysis,
among other items. After the form is prepared, a supervisory chemist is
required to review the form. Our review of the DEA 86s noted a few
exceptions. Specifically, the worksheets were missing from 2 of 216
analyzed exhibits in our sample and 3 of the worksheets were missing the
reviewer’s initials. Four of the eight DEA laboratory internal inspection
reports, including the Southwest Laboratory, also identified instances in
which there were errors in the completion of this form. Not being able to
locate these forms or incorrectly completed forms could require a chemist
to break the original chemist’s seal and reanalyze evidence—perhaps years
after the initial analysis. In addition, certain information reported only on
the form, such as the gross weights before and after analysis, would be
unknown.

DEA 12s are required to be maintained in the laboratory case files if drug
evidence is transferred to individuals outside of the laboratory. The
individual receiving custody of the evidence is required to sign the form
and return it to DEA for inclusion in the laboratory file. According to DEA
policy, the signature of a witness must be obtained when the evidence is
transferred to a non-DEA official, such as a Customs or FBI agent. We
found that the files for 10 of the 77 exhibits in our laboratory sample that
had been transferred to an individual outside the laboratory were missing a
transfer form. In addition, the laboratories were inconsistent in obtaining
witness signatures on these forms. At the Southwest Laboratory, officials
told us that they did not require Customs agents to provide a witness
signature due to the large volume of exhibits they analyze for Customs
(i.e., over 300 exhibits could be picked up on a given day). Additionally, an
internal inspection report for one of the laboratories, not included in our
review, also found examples of missing DEA 12s. Having the recipient’s
acknowledgement of receipt is critical for documenting the transfer of
custody and the recipient’s acceptance of responsibility for the evidence.



10
 No additional explanation of these chain of custody issues was given in the document we
were provided.




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                DEA policy also requires that photographs of bulk seizures be maintained
                in laboratory files. Photographs provide visible evidence of drugs that may
                be destroyed prior to the trial of a case and may be used in lieu of
                transporting drugs to court. Two of the four bulk seizure laboratory files we
                reviewed were missing the required photographs. The drugs for one of
                these seizure cases had already been destroyed. In another example,
                photographs were missing for a 50-kilogram seizure because it had been
                split into five exhibits, so that no one exhibit was considered bulk. In
                addition, DEA internal inspection reports for three laboratories, including
                the Southeast and Southwest Laboratories and the San Diego Division
                Office, indicated that 11 of 43 bulk seizure cases reviewed were missing the
                required photographs. Ensuring that photographs are taken and maintained
                in the file can reduce unnecessary transporting of drug evidence to court
                and could allow for earlier destruction of bulk evidence.

                DEA policy requires that two agents be involved in the seizure and sealing
                of evidence and that they both sign an evidence label. During our testing,
                we noted instances where the required witness signature was missing from
                the evidence label. Specifically, 4 of the 142 drug exhibits we weighed, as
                well as 8 out of 72 weapons we selected for testing and observed, were
                missing the required witness signatures on the evidence labels. Officials
                were unable to explain why the required signatures were missing. Having a
                witness to the seizure and the sealing of critical evidence is important to
                prevent any one individual from having uncontrolled access to evidence.


Recordkeeping   DEA uses various information systems and logbooks to account for drug
                and weapon evidence. During our testing, we noted errors and inaccuracies
                in certain data in the systems used to account for both drug and weapon
                evidence and the logbook used to account for bulk marijuana. DEA’s
                internal inspection teams reported similar weaknesses with the
                recordkeeping of drug evidence. Maintaining complete and accurate
                records is essential for ensuring that evidence is properly accounted for
                and reported on.

                Federal financial accounting standards and related supplemental guidance
                have highlighted the importance of accurately accounting for nonvalued
                seized and forfeited property, including seized drugs. Specifically, the
                Statement of Federal Financial Accounting Standard (SFFAS) No. 3,
                Accounting for Inventory and Related Property, issued in October 1993,
                requires the disclosure of all material forfeited property, including those
                items with no financial value. One such disclosure is an analysis of changes



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in seized property that would include the amount of seized property,
including drugs (1) on hand at the beginning of the year, (2) acquired during
the year, (3) disposed of during the year, and (4) on hand at the end of the
year.11

Recently issued supplemental guidance for SFFAS No. 3 states that
amounts for certain drugs, including cocaine and heroin, should be based
on weight.12 For example, the standard unit of measurement for such illegal
drugs should be kilograms. In addition, according to the guidance, material
amounts of other seized drugs should be separately reported by liquid
weight, dry weight, number of tablets, or other appropriate measures.

The evidence system used to track nondrug evidence, including weapons,
contained inaccurate data even though annual inventories were being
performed with no outstanding exceptions being documented. DEA policy
requires annual inventories of all nondrug evidence; however, we identified
6 of 78 sampled items at three of the four division offices we visited where
weapons were included on the inventory listing but DEA officials were
unable to locate them in the evidence vault. Only after DEA personnel
conducted research were they eventually able to explain all of the
discrepancies and provide us with supporting documentation. In some
cases the weapon had already been destroyed; in others, the weapon had
been transferred. For example, at the Miami Division Office, two of the
weapons were destroyed in July 1995, while another was transferred to the
U.S. Marshals Service in 1993. These weapons still appeared on the office’s
inventory listing as of October 1998 even after the division office officials
indicated that annual inventories had been conducted.

In another instance at the Miami Division Office, we were unable to
physically observe a firearm because the evidence custodian was unable to


11
 The Joint Financial Management Improvement Program (JFMIP) has recently issued an
exposure draft, Seized Property and Forfeited Assets Systems Requirements (JFMIP-SR-
99-7, June 1999), that covers systems requirements for seized property and forfeited assets.
According to the exposure draft, a system component that covers the custody of seized and
forfeited property must have the capability to provide information to allow the independent
verification that each item of seized property is in the physical or constructive custody of
the government and that the recorded quantity is accurate.
12
 Reporting on Non-Valued Seized and Forfeited Property, Federal Financial Accounting and
Auditing Technical Release Number 4, July 31, 1999, issued by the Accounting and Auditing
Policy Committee (AAPC), which is a permanent committee sponsored by the Federal
Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB).




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locate the firearm at the time of our visit. The custodian subsequently
informed us that the firearm had been packaged for transfer to another
DEA office and provided us with photographs that DEA represented was of
the firearm. Additional documentation was provided supporting the
transfer and receipt of the firearm; however, we noted that the contents of
the package, listed as “3 guns, money, and jewelry” was recorded on a copy
of the Federal Express packaging slip, which was attached to the outside of
the package. According to DEA policy, the nature of the contents should
not have been specified on the packaging slip.

We also noted errors in the logbooks used to account for evidence
maintained in the bulk marijuana storage facilities at two division offices.
For 3 of the 15 bulk storage items selected for testing at the San Diego
Division Office, inaccurate case numbers were recorded in the logbook
when the drugs were initially brought into the storage area and then the
proper case number was recorded when the drugs were removed. This
inconsistent recording makes it more difficult to track the amount of drugs
that should be in the facility at any given time and to link the drugs to the
case number they are associated with. The responsible division office
official could not explain why the agents were using incorrect case
numbers and stated that she would take action to address this issue. At the
Dallas Division Office, a logbook entry was taped over and not marked
through and initialed as required by DEA policy. Properly marking through
and initialing the entry allows others to determine who made the change
and whether the original entry was no longer appropriate.

Other discrepancies were found with the data in the laboratories’ STRIDE
system. This system is used to provide statistical and other program
information related to drug seizures. Data from the DEA 7, as prepared by
agents, is required to be entered into STRIDE within 3 working days of
receipt of the evidence. In most cases, the information was not entered
within 3 working days. DEA officials attributed this to staffing shortages
and other priorities. Once the analysis is completed by a chemist, STRIDE
is required to be updated to record the results of the analysis and again
when the evidence is transferred or destroyed. Out of the 236 laboratory
files we reviewed, we found 15 instances where the data in STRIDE did not
agree with the supporting documentation. In 6 of the 15 instances, STRIDE
was not updated to reflect correct weight information. Ensuring that data
are promptly and correctly entered into STRIDE provides program
managers with more accurate and useful information.




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                            DEA’s internal inspection reports also highlighted recordkeeping problems
                            at 2 of the 8 laboratories, the Northeast and Southeast Laboratories, and 3
                            of the 20 division offices, all of which were not included in our review. For
                            example, the Northeast Laboratory, after conducting an inventory of its
                            vault, experienced “a large number of discrepancies” when reconciling its
                            STRIDE inventory report to the DEA 307s. The inspection report relating to
                            this laboratory also stated that, “[a]s a result of the noted deficiencies,
                            which involved numerous items of evidence not accounted for, a PR [Office
                            of Professional Responsibility] investigation was initiated.” Because we
                            received the sections from the internal inspection reports near the end of
                            our fieldwork, we did not follow-up with the laboratory to determine the
                            results of this investigation.

                            DEA’s internal inspection reports also noted problems at two division
                            offices not included in our review involving the logbook used to account
                            for items in the bulk storage facility. At one location, it was reported that
                            the individual responsible for the drug evidence was “not maintaining his
                            record keeping and tracking system in compliance with DEA policies as
                            delineated in the DEA Agents Manual, Section 6662. Although several log
                            books were present, IN [Office of Inspections] determined that all drug
                            evidence was tracked in one bound ledger, which contained gaps in time
                            exceeding seven years.” At another division office, the report stated that
                            “there were inaccurate entries in the drug logbooks. Both drug logbooks
                            contained inconsistent descriptions of the drug exhibits seized and
                            submitted, which coupled with a lack of case numbers and submitted
                            weights, created the appearance that drug exhibits may have been lost.”
                            According to a DEA official, corrective actions have been taken to address
                            these issues.


Accounting for Weights of   According to DEA policy, for control purposes and because of mandatory
Drug Exhibits               minimum sentencing laws, all weights for drug exhibits should be
                            determined as precisely as possible. Properly documenting the weights at
                            different stages (i.e., upon receipt or after analysis) and resolving
                            discrepancies is critical if the exhibit is used as evidence in court and for
                            decreasing the potential for theft. We found weaknesses with the recorded
                            weights of drug exhibits, from the initial seizure by the agent through
                            destruction by the laboratory. Specifically, we found instances where
                            (1) agents improperly recorded weights on the DEA 7, (2) chemists did not
                            obtain a witness’ verification for weight differences, (3) DEA did not
                            always require that weights be recorded on the forms used to transfer




                            Page 19                                 GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
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drugs for safekeeping, (4) chemists improperly recorded weights on the
DEA 86 after analysis, and (5) unexplained weight differences occurred.

DEA policy requires agents to be properly trained in the use of scales and
to weigh drug evidence after sealing and prior to submission to the
laboratory. The gross weight of the exhibit is recorded on the DEA 7 to the
nearest tenth of a gram if under 1 kilogram and to the nearest gram if over
1 kilogram. We found instances where agents inappropriately rounded or
recorded the number of packages seized instead of the weight. In one
example, an agent recorded that 6 “kilos” or bricks of cocaine had been
seized and submitted to the laboratory, not the actual weight (7.75
kilograms as recorded by the chemist). In another example, the agent
recorded that 25 kilograms of hashish oil was seized and submitted to the
laboratory, instead of recording the weight to the nearest gram as required
by DEA policy. Since the agent did not record the weight to the nearest
gram, a significant difference could exist and not be detected. For example,
the weight recorded to the nearest gram for this exhibit could range from
24,500 grams to 25,499 grams. Inaccurate recording of drug weights
decreases DEA’s accountability over such evidence.

During our testing we noted that drug evidence is not required to be
weighed by the laboratory upon receipt, but just prior to analysis by a
chemist. The evidence may remain in the vault for several months before it
is analyzed. Prior to breaking the seals, chemists are required by DEA
policy to verify that the weight of drug evidence agrees with the agent’s
submitted weight for the drug evidence. If there is a difference of more
than 2 grams or 0.2 percent from the agent’s submitted weight, whichever is
greater, the chemist is required to obtain verification of the weight
difference from a supervisor or another chemist who must then initial next
to the chemist’s recorded weight designating that the verification was
performed.

In 1995, DEA’s Administrator disagreed with an OIG recommendation that
exhibits be weighed immediately upon receipt at the laboratory. The
Administrator stated that the laboratory should ensure that the evidence is
properly sealed and that “policy and procedure permit any discrepancy in
gross weight to be addressed administratively at any time prior to breaking
the seal.” However, of the 216 analyzed exhibits in our sample, the chemist
did not obtain the required written verification for 28 of the 86 drug
exhibits that met the criteria for verification. The differences ranged from
just over 2 grams to 1.75 kilograms (about one-fifth of the exhibit’s total
weight). Obtaining independent verification when differences exist ensures



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that possible arguments over such differences by the defense or the
submitting agent are mitigated. It also decreases the potential that the
difference could be subjected to theft and not be detected. For the 28
exhibits we reviewed with differences and no witness verification, the time
frames for receipt of evidence by the laboratory to when the chemist
weighed the exhibit ranged from 1 week to over 5 months.

During our testing, we also noted instances where the weights of drug
exhibits were not recorded on the forms used to document the transfer of
drugs to a division office or to a laboratory. DEA policy requires the gross
weight of bulk marijuana to be thoroughly documented, but does not
specifically require that this information be provided to the evidence
custodian upon transfer to bulk storage facilities at the division offices. In a
bulk marijuana exhibit we selected for testing, we were only able to verify
that the quantity (12 boxes and 1 container) agreed to the quantity recorded
on the form used to transfer the evidence. There was no weight recorded in
the file maintained by the evidence custodian or in the logbook. Also, at the
laboratories we visited, we noted that weights were not always recorded on
the forms used by several non-DEA agencies when submitting exhibits to a
DEA laboratory for analysis. The agencies included local police
departments, ATF, and Customs. DEA policy does not require non-DEA
agencies to record weights on the forms used to transfer exhibits, therefore
chemists are unable to determine if there is a difference between the
submitted weight and the new weight that would require a witness
verification. Further, the policy does not require that chemists obtain a
witness’ verification if the weight is not recorded on the transfer form. Not
documenting weights on the forms used to transfer drugs for safekeeping
and/or requiring that chemists obtain a witness’ verification for exhibits
that do not contain a recorded weight on the transfer form decreases DEA’s
accountability over such evidence.

Once the chemist performs the analysis on the exhibit, DEA policy requires
the chemist to record the gross weight of the exhibit after it is resealed to
the nearest tenth of a gram if the weight is between 10 and 1,000 grams, and
to four significant figures if greater than 1,000 grams (e.g., 2,013 grams,
327.0 kilograms). However, the weights for 8 of the 142 exhibits we
physically observed were inappropriately rounded by the chemist (7 of the




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8 occurred at the Southeast Laboratory).13 In one example, the chemist
recorded the gross weight after analysis as 7.1 kilograms, instead of
recording the weight to 4 significant figures. Not recording the weight more
precisely could result in undetected theft of the difference due to rounding.
There was one instance in which we could not compare our observed
weight for a particular exhibit to the recorded gross weight after analysis
because the chemist recorded the combined weight of four exhibits
together and not for each exhibit. DEA officials agreed that the weights
should have been recorded for each exhibit, particularly since one exhibit
could be destroyed before the others. As noted above, inaccurate recording
of drug weights decreases DEA’s accountability over such evidence.

We also noted instances where DEA officials were unable to account for or
explain differences between recorded weights and our observed weights.
These differences ranged from a few grams to over 11.35 kilograms (about
25 pounds). Of the 142 items we reweighed at the laboratories, our
observed weight for 40 of the items was more than 5 grams over or under
the chemist’s recorded gross weight after analysis.

DEA officials told us that scientific research has been performed and
documented as to why certain drugs are susceptible to weight changes.
For instance, weight gains are typically due to moisture absorption by
certain drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. They stated that losses for
certain other drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine base, are usually the
result of the drugs losing moisture as they dry. However, 7 of the 40 items
with weight differences did not follow the above trends and 2 of these
items occurred on exhibits that had been authorized for destruction.
Specifically, at the Northeast Laboratory, we weighed one cocaine exhibit
that was no longer needed as evidence and was about to be destroyed, and
determined that it was about 50 grams14 less than the gross weight recorded
by the chemist a few weeks before our visit. At the Southeast Laboratory,
one cocaine exhibit had been analyzed 3 years prior to our testing and the
weight for this exhibit had decreased by 6 percent, approximately 300
grams. In another example at the same laboratory, the gross weight after


13
 According to DEA officials, having chemists record the gross weight after analysis on the
DEA 86 has always been a recommended procedure that became a requirement in January
1998. We were unable to compare our observed weight for 16 exhibits that were analyzed
prior to when the requirement to record the gross weights after analysis became effective.
14
 Fifty grams of cocaine have an approximate “street” value of up to $5,000 based on DEA
estimates as of February 1998.




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                  analysis of a cocaine exhibit decreased by over 200 grams, even though
                  additional materials, three plastic bottles and bubble wrap, were added to
                  the exhibit prior to resealing. Laboratory officials at both sites were unable
                  to specifically explain the lower weights for these three exhibits, but
                  indicated that other factors, such as humidity or temperature changes
                  within the vault, could result in weight differences that did not follow the
                  above trends.

                  The largest difference was noted at the bulk storage facility maintained by
                  the Miami Division Office, where a marijuana exhibit weighed about
                  25 pounds less than (or about half) the weight recorded when the drug was
                  received at the site. Although both the agent and the evidence custodian
                  had verified and initialed the receiving weight in this case, DEA officials
                  agreed that the decrease in weight seemed excessive, but were unable to
                  provide a specific explanation for the difference.



Conclusion        DEA has established numerous policies and procedures to control and
                  safeguard drug and weapon evidence in its custody. However, based on our
                  work at four division offices and laboratories and the results of DEA’s
                  internal inspections performed from March 1996 through August 1998,
                  specific actions are needed to strengthen accountability over and
                  safeguarding of drug and weapon evidence. Such actions will help reduce
                  the potential for theft, misuse, or loss of drug and weapon evidence and the
                  risk of evidence being compromised for federal prosecution purposes
                  while in DEA custody.



Recommendations   We recommend that the Attorney General require that the DEA
                  Administrator take the appropriate steps to reinforce DEA’s adherence to
                  existing DEA policies regarding

                  • properly storing bulk marijuana evidence in designated approved areas
                    and sealing weapons in evidence bags;
                  • destroying drugs promptly to alleviate overcrowded drug evidence
                    vaults and reduce the additional risk of theft since these drugs are no
                    longer needed as evidence;
                  • chemists returning drug evidence to the evidence vault promptly after
                    analysis so that the evidence is not maintained for excessive amounts of
                    time in a more accessible area than that of the vault;




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                      • requiring that two signatures be recorded on evidence labels prior to
                        acceptance by laboratory and division office evidence custodians;
                      • maintaining complete and properly reviewed documentation in the
                        laboratory seizure files and promptly entering accurate information into
                        STRIDE;
                      • identifying any discrepancies–between evidence maintained in the vault
                        and the location of evidence per the Non-Drug Evidence System–during
                        annual inventories and promptly researching the discrepancies and
                        updating the appropriate records;
                      • not specifying the contents on packaging slips when using commercial
                        carriers;
                      • maintaining complete and accurate information in bulk marijuana
                        logbooks; and
                      • chemists and agents recording weights in accordance with DEA policy
                        and chemists obtaining an independent written verification if weight
                        differences, over the DEA established threshold, exist between the
                        weight of drug evidence reported by the agent and that weighed by the
                        chemist.

                      Further, we recommend that the Attorney General require that the DEA
                      Administrator modify existing DEA policy to include guidance for

                      • agents to obtain a written certification from an independent party
                        experienced in handling firearms that firearms and other weapons being
                        submitted for storage in the vault are rendered safe prior to being
                        stored;
                      • requiring that if a DEA 12 is used to transfer bulk marijuana (1) the
                        weight be recorded on the DEA 12 or (2) a copy of the DEA 7 be
                        provided to the evidence custodian; and
                      • requiring that weights be recorded on the forms used to transfer non-
                        DEA exhibits to a laboratory prior to acceptance by the evidence
                        custodian and/or requiring that chemists obtain a witness verification if
                        no weight is recorded on the transfer form.



Agency Comments and   In commenting on a draft of this report, DEA concurred that the
                      accountability and safeguarding of evidence is of critical importance and
Our Evaluation        that we are right to point out the inherent risk involved in monitoring the
                      integrity and accountability of evidence. DEA indicated that it will take the
                      appropriate steps to reinforce its adherence to existing policies or to
                      implement new policies relating to 11 of our 12 recommendations. DEA
                      disagreed with our recommendation to modify existing DEA policy to



                      Page 24                                 GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
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require that weights be recorded on the forms used to transfer bulk
marijuana exhibits prior to acceptance by the evidence custodian because
they believe that this policy already exists. While we recognize that a DEA
policy exists that requires that weights be documented on the DEA 7,
several of our sample items involved transfers of bulk marijuana to an
evidence custodian using a DEA 12 and the weights were not recorded on
the DEA 12. Although a description of the evidence is required to be
recorded on the DEA 12, recording the weight on the form is not
specifically required. We therefore clarified our recommendation to state
that DEA modify their existing policy to require that if a DEA 12 is used to
transfer evidence (1) the weight be recorded on the DEA 12 or (2) a copy of
the DEA 7 be provided to the evidence custodian.

In addition to responding to our recommendations, DEA provided us with
additional comments on our draft report and requested that we consider
them before finalizing the report for publication. DEA stated that issues
identified in the report do not appear to be systemic weaknesses and, for
the most part, were found in areas where redundant controls are in place to
ensure that the integrity of the evidence is maintained at all times. We
disagree. Several of the issues discussed in this report, which we consider
to be of a more severe nature, involved discrepancies at all, or almost all, of
the locations that we visited and redundant controls did not exist to
compensate for the deficiencies. In addition, while DEA officials indicated
that the reported deficiencies in their inspection reports had been
addressed, as noted throughout this report, we identified weaknesses that
were the same or similar to ones identified during internal inspections
performed prior to our review including some at the locations we visited.

For example, DEA policy requires that if drug evidence is transferred to an
individual outside of the laboratory, the individual receiving custody must
sign the DEA 12 (transfer form) and return it to DEA. We found 10 of 77
drug exhibits that had been transferred to an individual outside the
laboratory that were missing the DEA 12. Having the recipient’s
acknowledgment of receipt is critical for documenting the transfer of
custody and the recipient’s acceptance of responsibility for the evidence.
The controls mentioned by DEA (i.e., recording the transfer on a DEA 307,
DEA 12, and in a database) may be redundant in documenting the transfer
of custody, but these do not in any way annotate or document the
recipient’s actual acceptance of responsibility for the transferred evidence.
We identified this problem at each of the four laboratories we visited.




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In another example, for 28 of the 86 drug exhibits we reviewed that had
weight discrepancies above the threshold set forth in DEA’s policy,
chemists did not obtain the appropriate verification required by DEA policy
before opening and analyzing the evidence. Obtaining independent
verification when differences exist ensures that possible arguments over
such differences by the defense or the submitting agent are mitigated and
decreases the potential that the difference could be subjected to theft and
not detected. Three of the 4 laboratories that we visited contributed to the
28 discrepancies in this area, and we did not identify a compensating
control that would specifically reduce the risk of this type of deficiency.
According to a DEA official, the inspection teams did not test for this
verification, but will do so in future inspections.

In several comments related to the significance of certain discrepancies,
DEA stated that all exhibits of drug evidence examined by GAO were found
to be in a sealed condition. We agree that adequately established and
implemented sealing of evidence procedures can reduce the risk of theft,
misuse, or loss of drug evidence. However, certain conditions identified by
us during our testing and included in this report diminish the effectiveness
of DEA’s sealing of evidence procedures. For example, a witness signature
was not present on the evidence label used to seal evidence by the seizing
agent for 4 of 142 drug exhibits we reweighed. Having a witness signature
at the time of sealing the evidence is important to prevent any one
individual from having uncontrolled access to evidence. In addition, we
observed exhibits for which the packaging or the tape used to seal boxes
was deteriorating, or had already deteriorated to the point that the box was
open, increasing the potential for access to the contents. At one location,
we observed a punctured evidence bag containing approximately
2 kilograms of heroin. Further, at a bulk marijuana warehouse, we
observed that several bags of a 9,000 pound seizure were worn, increasing
the potential for access to the contents.

This report contains recommendations to you. The head of a federal agency
is required by 31 U.S.C. 720 to submit a written statement on actions taken
on these recommendations to the Senate Committee on Governmental
Affairs and the House Committee on Government Reform within 60 days of
the date of this report. You must also send a written statement to the House
and Senate Committees on Appropriations with the agency’s first request
for appropriations made over 60 days after the date of this report.




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We are sending copies of this report to Senator Fred Thompson, Senator
Joseph Lieberman, Representative Dan Burton, Representative Henry A.
Waxman, Representative Stephen Horn, and Representative Jim Turner in
their capacities as Chair or Ranking Minority Member of Senate or House
Committees and Subcommittees. We are also sending copies of this report
to Donnie R. Marshall, the Administrator of DEA; Robert L. Ashbaugh,
Acting Inspector General, Department of Justice; and the Honorable
Jacob J. Lew, Director, Office of Management and Budget. Copies will be
made available to others upon request.

If you have any questions regarding this report, please contact me at
(202) 512-3406. Key contributors to this assignment were Larry Malenich,
Casey Keplinger, and Jeffrey Knott.

Sincerely yours,




Gary T. Engel
Associate Director
Governmentwide Accounting and
  Financial Management Issues




Page 27                               GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
Appendix I

Scope and Methodology                                                                                     AA
                                                                                                           ppp
                                                                                                             ep
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                                                                                                                 idx
                                                                                                                   eIis




             To accomplish our objectives, we interviewed officials from DEA
             headquarters and selected division offices and laboratories concerning
             various aspects of the seizure, storage, and disposal of seized drugs and
             weapons. We reviewed DEA’s Laboratory Operations Manual and Agents
             Manual for policies and procedures pertaining to the processes used to
             seize, account for, safeguard, and dispose of drugs and weapons. Based on
             documentation provided by DEA headquarters, we selected four division
             offices and corresponding laboratories with a large volume of drug seizure
             activity–Dallas, Texas (South Central Laboratory); Miami, Florida
             (Southeast Laboratory); New York, New York (Northeast Laboratory); and
             San Diego, California (Southwest Laboratory)–to perform our testing.

             From DEA headquarters, we obtained a STRIDE listing for drug exhibits
             submitted to the laboratories from October 1997 through August 1998.
             A random sample of 59 drug exhibits from the listing was statistically
             selected for each of the four laboratories. These exhibits included DEA
             cases, as well as cases from other agencies, such as FBI and Customs. For
             each item selected, we requested the laboratory seizure file and other
             related documentation to test certain controls, mostly related to ensuring
             that proper chain of custody documentation existed. We judgmentally
             selected and weighed 10 of the 59 items at each selected site to verify the
             recorded weight in the file against our observed weight.1 At each of the
             selected laboratories, we also obtained current inventory listings of
             cocaine seizures over 3 kilograms and heroin seizures over 500 grams, and
             selected 10 seizures from the listings, observed their existence, and
             weighed the item.2 From the evidence maintained in the vault at each of the
             four selected laboratories, we judgmentally selected 15 items, weighed
             each item, and traced each one to a current inventory listing provided by
             the laboratory. Items were selected based on length of time the exhibit had
             been in storage, condition of packaging, type of drug, and/or whether the
             exhibit had been authorized for destruction. In total, we weighed 142 items.




             1
              At two of the laboratories, we were unable to select 10 items to reweigh because many of
             the exhibits in our sample of 59 had been transferred to another agency, destroyed, or were
             of insignificant amounts. In these instances, replacement items were selected.
             2
              At two of the laboratories, we selected seven items from the listings and 3 items from
             alternative sources. At one laboratory, 3 of the 10 items had been authorized for destruction.
             At another laboratory, 3 of the 10 items selected were exhibits received by the laboratory,
             but not yet analyzed.




             Page 28                                          GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
Appendix I
Scope and Methodology




At each selected division office, we reviewed the logbooks maintained by
the facility to track bulk marijuana and physically inspected the bulk
storage facilities. We judgmentally selected a total of 20 exhibits from the
logbooks and 18 exhibits from those maintained in the storage facilities. We
reviewed the related files maintained by the evidence custodian and
weighed 14 of the exhibits. The specific number of cases selected for
review and weighed varied at each location due to a limited number of bulk
drug exhibits being maintained or because we were unable to reasonably
reweigh the exhibit. For those cases not reweighed, we verified the
quantity. At each selected division office, we also obtained current
inventory listings from NEDS to randomly select 10 weapons to verify their
existence in the vault. In addition, from weapons maintained in the vault,
we judgmentally selected 10 items based on length of time each weapon
had been in storage, type of weapon, or condition of packaging. Each
selected item was traced to the current inventory listing.3 We observed
72 of the total 78 items selected. Six of the items selected from the listing
were no longer being stored in the division office’s evidence vaults. For
these six cases, we reviewed the related disposition documents.

At each of the four laboratories and division offices, we observed the
location and condition of storage facilities and other physical safeguards
including cameras, motion detectors, and combination locks that are in
place to control access to and use of drug and weapon evidence. We also
made inquiries of DEA’s personnel about the operation of the physical
safeguards. However, due to the sensitive nature of the evidence, we did
not perform any comprehensive tests to verify the operation of the specific
physical safeguards because we did not want to risk compromising any of
the evidence that may be needed for prosecution purposes.

To determine if issues we identified at the four selected division offices and
laboratories are indicative of more systemic concerns, we (1) reviewed
reports4 issued by DOJ’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) related to


3
 At one division office, we used a manually prepared listing provided by the evidence
custodian. At another division office, we were only able to identify and select six weapons
from the vault since this division office seizes a limited number of weapons and does not
maintain a separate area just for weapons. We selected and observed an additional two
items from the listing. Therefore, the total number of weapons selected at the 4 offices
was 78.
4
 Drug Enforcement Administration’s Laboratory Operations (DOJ OIG, 95-18, May 1995) and
Retention of Drug Evidence in Drug Enforcement Administration Laboratories (DOJ OIG,
I-96-02, February 1996).




Page 29                                         GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
Appendix I
Scope and Methodology




laboratory operations and (2) requested and reviewed a copy of the
sections of the most recent DEA internal inspection reports for 20 of DEA’s
21 division offices5 and for the 8 laboratories that cover procedures and
internal controls related to seized drugs and weapons. These inspections
were performed between March 1996 and August 1998. Because we
received the sections of the internal inspection reports near the end of our
fieldwork, we did not follow-up with the division offices or laboratories to
determine the extent to which noted deficiencies had been corrected. We
performed our work in accordance with generally accepted government
auditing standards from August 1998 through August 1999.

We requested written comments on a draft of this report from the Attorney
General or her designee. The Acting DEA Administrator provided written
comments, which are discussed in the “Agency Comments and Our
Evaluation” section and are reprinted in appendix II. DEA also provided
five enclosures with technical suggestions or supplemental information
that we took into consideration while finalizing our report.




5
The El Paso Division Office was established after the completion of our fieldwork.




Page 30                                       GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
Appendix II

Comments From the Drug Enforcement
Administration                                                                  Appendx
                                                                                      iI




Note: GAO comments
supplementing those in the
report text appear at the end
of this appendix.




See comment 1.




                                Page 31   GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                      Appendix II
                      Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                      Administration




See comment 2.




See comment 3.



See comment 2.

See comment 4.




Now on pp. 14 & 15.


Now on p. 16.


See comment 2.




See comment 5.




                      Page 32                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                    Appendix II
                    Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                    Administration




See comment 6.
Now on p. 10.




See comment 7.




See comment 8.




See comment 9.
Now on pp. 10-11.

See comment 2.




See comment 10.




                    Page 33                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                  Appendix II
                  Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                  Administration




See comment 2.
Now on p. 11.




See comment 11.
Now on p. 12.




See comment 12.




                  Page 34                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                  Appendix II
                  Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                  Administration




See comment 10.
Now on p. 13.




See comment 4.
Now on p. 14.




See comment 4.




See comment 13.
Now on p. 15.




See comment 14.




                  Page 35                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                    Appendix II
                    Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                    Administration




See comment 15.
Now on p. 16.




See comment 16.
Now on p. 18.




See comment 17.
Now on pp. 19-20.




See comment 18.
Now on pp. 22-23.




                    Page 36                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                         Appendix II
                         Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                         Administration




See comments 9 and 10.




See comment 19.




                         Page 37                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                  Appendix II
                  Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                  Administration




See comment 20.




See comment 21.




See comment 2.




                  Page 38                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                  Appendix II
                  Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                  Administration




See comment 22.




                  Page 39                              GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
               Appendix II
               Comments From the Drug Enforcement
               Administration




               The following are GAO’s comments on the Drug Enforcement
               Administration’s letter dated October 21, 1999.



GAO Comments   1. This review occurred in June 1999 with accreditation being granted in
               September 1999, subsequent to our review. The review covered DEA’s 8
               laboratories, but none of the division offices.

               2. See “Agency Comments and Our Evaluation” section.

               3. We did note in our report that we requested and reviewed a copy of the
               sections of the most recent DEA internal inspection reports for the division
               offices and laboratories in existence at the time of our fieldwork that cover
               procedures and internal controls related to seized drugs and weapons. In
               addition, in several places in this report, we noted the period of time
               covered by these inspections. As we reported, because we received the
               sections of the internal inspection reports near the end of our fieldwork,
               we did not follow-up with the division offices or laboratories to determine
               the extent to which noted deficiencies had been corrected.

               4. In order to provide balance to the report, we also reported instances
               where we only found a few discrepancies. For the cases cited here by DEA
               where we noted three or fewer discrepancies, we used language such as,
               we “found substantial compliance with the policy, but noted a few
               exceptions.” As noted throughout the report, we identified numerous
               discrepancies in other key areas.

               5. The report was clarified to include that chemists also document that
               they have verified that the seals are intact by checking the appropriate box
               on the DEA 86.

               6. As noted in our report, at the South Central Laboratory, we were
               informed that there were cameras that monitor vault activity that were not
               operational. In addition, at our exit conference with DEA, agency officials
               provided documentation indicating that after our visit the two cameras in
               question had subsequently been fixed.

               7. We reported that an official indicated that the vault alarm system at the
               Northeast Laboratory in New York had been fixed. We also noted that to
               confirm this, we had asked for the more recent inspection report for this
               laboratory, but as of the completion of our fieldwork, it had not been
               provided to us. After our exit conference with DEA, we were provided



               Page 40                                 GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
Appendix II
Comments From the Drug Enforcement
Administration




further documentation relating to this issue. However, the documentation
did not clearly demonstrate that the alarm had been fixed. In addition,
along with the comments on our draft report, DEA provided a Self-
Inspection Status Report (instead of the requested internal inspection
report). However, this report did not specifically indicate that the work was
performed and whether the problem was resolved.

8. We reported that we observed physical safeguards that are in place to
control and monitor access to and use of drug and weapon evidence.
However, due to the sensitive nature of the evidence, we did not perform
any comprehensive tests to verify the operation of the specific physical
safeguards because we did not want to risk compromising any of the
evidence that may be needed for prosecution purposes. The specific
physical safeguard issues listed in this report are weaknesses we identified
through observation or inquiry of officials, or were reported in DEA’s
internal inspection reports. Since we were not previously informed of the
physical security surveys or formal courtesy visits referred to in DEA’s
comments and have not been provided any documentation showing the
scope of such reviews, we cannot determine whether the reviews
addressed the control areas we reported on.

9. We reported that due to space constraints in the drug evidence vaults at
two of the four laboratories we visited, we observed boxes that had been
stacked on the floor such that the lower boxes were being crushed,
increasing the potential for access to the contents and therefore increasing
the potential for theft, misuse, or loss. DEA stated that it recognizes that
the evidence vaults at some locations are overcrowded and need to be
enlarged and has plans to construct several new laboratory facilities with
larger evidence vaults to address this issue.

10. Our report does describe the process by which DEA handles bulk
evidence, including the recognition that other parties influence how bulk
evidence is handled and when it is destroyed. We did not take issue to there
being circumstances for which bulk evidence may need to be held for
extended periods of time, but requested that documentation supporting the
extension be provided. Specifically, for bulk exhibits tested, we requested
that DEA provide either a (1) DEA 48, authorizing the destruction or
(2) Letter of Intent to Destroy, which is sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,
along with the U.S. Attorney’s response authorizing DEA to retain bulk
amounts. For two of the five bulk exhibits tested, the letters authorizing
DEA to maintain amounts above certain thresholds or the forms
authorizing the destruction were not provided. In addition, 1 of 16 exhibits



Page 41                                 GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
Appendix II
Comments From the Drug Enforcement
Administration




that had been authorized for destruction had not been destroyed within the
90 days as required by DEA policy. This exhibit had been authorized for
destruction but was not destroyed until over 5 months after approval was
obtained.

11. We recognize that situations beyond management’s control can
occasionally preclude chemists from adhering to the requirement that drug
evidence normally be returned to the vault within 5 working days after the
chemist’s analysis. However, returning evidence to the vault promptly
ensures that chemists do not maintain evidence for excessive amounts of
time in a more accessible area than that of the vault. In addition, 17 of the
20 reported instances occurred at the South Central Laboratory, indicating
a more significant problem at this particular laboratory. DEA
acknowledged that it would continue to reinforce the 5 working day policy
and that specific procedures have been instituted to correct the problem at
the South Central Laboratory.

12. The timeliness issues addressed in this report primarily affect the
controls over the safeguarding of evidence. Destroying evidence within 90
days of receiving approval as required by DEA policy conserves limited
vault space and eliminates the additional inherent risk of theft of drugs that
are no longer needed as evidence. DEA indicated that it will continue to
devote resources to ensure the timely destruction of evidence.

13. During our testing at each DEA location visited, we met with agency
officials and discussed our findings and provided them opportunities to
respond to our findings and to provide documentation that could resolve
the discrepancies. We requested, but were not provided, DEA 12s for 10 of
the 77 exhibits selected for our review that had been transferred to an
individual outside the laboratory. In addition, we were not provided with
any other documentation acknowledging receipt of the transferred items
by the recipient.

14. At our exit conference with DEA, agency officials indicated that the
issue in the internal inspection reports had been corrected, but did not
indicate that the DEA 12s in question related to special program exhibits
and were being filed in one central file, not in the individual corresponding
case files. DEA states that this issue has since been corrected and copies of
the DEA 12s for special program exhibits are being placed in their
respective case files.




Page 42                                 GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
Appendix II
Comments From the Drug Enforcement
Administration




15. As noted in comment 13, during our testing at each DEA location
visited, we met with agency officials and discussed our findings and
provided them opportunities to respond to such findings and to provide
documentation that could resolve the discrepancies. We requested, but
were not provided the required photographs for two of the four bulk
seizure files we reviewed, both of which exceeded the 10 kilogram
threshold.

16. Ensuring that data are promptly and correctly entered into STRIDE
provides program managers with more accurate and useful information.
However, as we reported, we found 15 instances where the data in STRIDE
did not agree with supporting documentation and therefore diminished
DEA’s accountability over the related evidence.

17. The two reported examples relate to exhibits that were submitted to
the laboratory in person and not mailed. Regardless of the method of
delivery, it is important that the chemist, as required by DEA policy, obtain
a witness’ verification when differences above the established threshold
exist to ensure that possible arguments over such differences by the
defense or submitting agent are mitigated.

18. We recognize that certain uncontrollable environmental factors may
cause weight differences that do not follow trends. However, DEA could
not specifically explain the weight decreases for several differences we
identified, including differences relating to two exhibits that had been
authorized for destruction and were therefore no longer needed as
evidence. For example, the weight for one cocaine exhibit that had been
analyzed 3 years prior to our testing had decreased by 6 percent or
approximately 300 grams. According to DEA officials, cocaine typically
absorbs moisture and gains weight. In another example, a marijuana
exhibit weighed about 25 pounds less than (or about half) the weight
recorded when the drug was received at the division office. DEA officials
agreed that the decrease in weight seemed excessive, but were unable to
provide a specific explanation for the difference. Further, as noted in our
agency comments and evaluation section of this report, we identified
certain conditions that diminish the effectiveness of DEA’s sealing of
evidence procedures.

19. DEA concurred with our recommendation to reinforce its policy that
requires two signatures be recorded on evidence labels prior to acceptance
by laboratory or division office evidence custodians. DEA stated that it will
reinforce the policy, but it is reluctant to return evidence that is mailed to



Page 43                                 GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
                   Appendix II
                   Comments From the Drug Enforcement
                   Administration




                   the laboratory with only one signature due to the added risk and delay of
                   mailing evidence back. We agree that mailing evidence back to obtain a
                   second signature may not be appropriate, however, the occurrence of this
                   situation should decrease if stronger adherence to the policy is achieved.

                   20. A Miami Division Office official provided us with a copy of a packaging
                   slip showing that one of the firearms in our sample had been transferred
                   from Miami to another DEA office. We reported that the contents of the
                   package, listed as “3 guns, money, and jewelry,” was recorded on the
                   packaging slip which was attached to the outside of the package. We
                   recommended that DEA adhere to a previously existing policy in its Agents
                   Manual, Section 6663.43, which states that the procedures set forth for the
                   domestic delivery of drug evidence shall also apply to nondrug property.
                   The procedures for mailing drug evidence specifically state that the outer
                   wrapping should bear no indication as to the nature of the contents.

                   21. Our primary objective in testing the controls over the safeguarding of
                   weapons was to determine whether control procedures existed and were
                   being followed. As we reported, we found two handguns that had not been
                   sealed in evidence bags as required by DEA policy and knives that were
                   stored in a zipper bag that could be easily opened. The scope of our testing
                   did not include determining if the weapons themselves were rendered safe.

                   22. The scope of our review was designed to determine whether
                   weaknesses in controls existed that increase the risk that evidence could
                   be compromised for federal prosecution purposes. It was not our intent to
                   specifically determine whether the evidence had in fact been
                   compromised.




(901799)   Leter   Page 44                                GAO/AIMD-00-17 Seized Drugs and Weapons
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