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State v. Governor - 362 S.C. 609, 608 S.E.2d 474 (Ct. App. 2005)

Rule:

A party offering fungible items, such as drugs, as evidence must establish a chain of custody as far as practicable. Where the substance passed through several hands, the evidence must not leave to conjecture who had it and what was done with it between the seizure and the analysis. While the proof of chain of custody need not negate all possibility of tampering, it must establish a complete chain of evidence as far as practicable. In applying this rule, the South Carolina courts have found evidence inadmissible only where there is a missing link in the chain of possession because the identity of those who handled the evidence was not established at least as far as practicable. By contrast, where the identity of those who handled the evidence is established, evidence regarding its care goes only to the weight of the specimen as credible evidence and not to its admissibility.

Facts:

During a traffic stop of a vehicle in which defendant was a passenger, police seized drugs from defendant. The seizure was on a Friday, and the officer put the drugs in an unsealed evidence bag in the trunk of his patrol car. The drugs remained there until Monday, when the officer gave them to the evidence custodian. Defendant was indicted for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. The trial court held a suppression hearing regarding the drug evidence seized by the police. The trial court suppressed the evidence based on the officers’ failure to comply with their own guidelines. On appeal, the State claimed that the trial court erred in suppressing evidence of seized drugs because it established a sufficient chain of custody for the drugs.

Issue:

Did the State establish a sufficient chain of custody for the drugs, thereby rendering the decision of the trial court to suppress the drugs an error?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate court found that the trial court erred in suppressing evidence of the drugs because the State established a sufficient chain of custody for them. South Carolina courts found evidence inadmissible only where there was a missing link in the chain of possession because the identity of those who handled the evidence was not established at least as far as practicable. In the present case, the State produced evidence of each person in the chain of custody and the manner in which the drugs were handled. Clearly, the officer failed to comply with department directives concerning handling of evidence. However, although this failure was the proper subject of cross-examination of the witness for credibility, it was not a proper basis for suppression. The trial court abused its discretion in suppressing the drug evidence.

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