Local News

What's needed in new sheriff's office

SEBRING - Crime scene evidence is kept inside Highlands County Jail. But of course, that's not the way it should be.

Evidence must be segregated from everyone: prisoners, corrections officers, civilian workers, even fellow police officers, said Lt. Manny Gonzalez, property and evidence supervisor at the sheriff's office. If it's not, it can be easily lost, stolen, or mistakenly switched with evidence from a different crime.

"The space we have, if we were to have two homicides with a lot of evidence, we would be overwhelmed," said Gonzalez. P&E already stores more than 34,000 pieces.

"And we need more space to maintain that evidence longer," said Capt. Tim Lethbridge, who administrates the judicial services division. Blood and fluid evidence of a murder or rape might be challenged in court for decades. "Because of the advances of DNA, that puts a big burden on evidence."

The current sheriff's office is a history of add-ons, from the days when law enforcement was administrated with little more than badges and guns, to the modern epochs of fingerprints, computers, blood work, laboratories, DNA and scientific crime scene investigations.

"Some of it was built in the 1950s," said Sheriff Susan Benton. "Some of it in the 1970s, some of it in 1986 I think, some of it in 1995, and 2004."

"The current crime scene investigations is in a small library built in the 1980s," Benton said. "It's inadequate for space, for analysis, for ventilation. There's not even an emergency wash basin."

Since the laboratory is in the jail on South Orange, vehicles involved in crimes are stored two miles away on South Kenilworth Boulevard, and the personnel are in offices 10 miles away at Liberty Star Plaza on U.S. 27 South, their days are spent constantly driving back and forth.

"If we have a car that needs to be processed, there is no bay here," Benton said. "The way they have to function is very disjointed. You (maximize) the risk of evidence being mishandled or laid aside, and then we lose our custody chain."

For two decades, sheriffs and county commissioners have talked about replacing the current office. Two weeks ago, the current board of county commissioners voted for a new building, contingent on financing.

An option has been taken on two vacant lots on Palmetto Avenue, between Eucalyptus and Sebring Parkway, enough for a 41,700 square-foot building that will cost about $9.15 million. It's one block east of the current sheriff's office.

Property and Evidence, the laboratory, and Crime Scene Investigations will take a quarter of the first floor - about 9,000 square feet - and Benton said that entire section must have its own security system.

Video cameras will surveil the area. P&E, the lab and CSI will have their own alarm systems, and access will be limited to property and evidence personnel, Benton said. An electronic system will scan ID cards and record everyone who goes in and out, when they enter, and when they leave.

"We have to carry stuff through the jail to get to the lab," Fennell said.

Even worse, Benton added, "We can't have weapons in the jail. "So they have to walk around block, or have someone meet them out back, with a firearm."

The way evidence is supposed to work, Gonzalez said, is with pass-though storage lockers.

Detectives and techs return from crime scenes at all hours with evidence of all shapes and sizes - a hair, a blood sample, a rifle, clothing.

Outside the lab, the detective or tech inserts plastic evidence bags into the locker wall, and then the door locks. Pass-through evidence lockers allow the evidence to be dropped off at odd hours, when an evidence technician may not be in the building.

Inside, lab or evidence techs collect the evidence and logs it in.

Lockers and the system itself protect the chain of custody by limiting the number of places the evidence must travel. The need to store evidence in a patrol car, a detective's desk, to walk evidence down a hall with people present, or pass it onto someone else to deliver decreases the chance that it will be damaged, lost or stolen. A concise chain of evidence leads to a successful outcome in court.

The sheriff's department has 360 law enforcement and civilian personnel, and each one who comes into contact with evidence raises the chance that a defense attorney can successful attack that evidence, Lethbridge said.

"It's the best way to do it," Crime Scene Sgt. Jeff Fennell smiled, "and there's a savings on gas."

"We've been out of space for years," said Chief Deputy Mark Schrader. Cars involved in crimes are stored at the maintenance garage, and fingerprints collected since the 1920s - since Highlands became a county - are filed in dozens of cabinets.

They should be digitally scanned, Benton conceded. "But we priced it out. It would cost $300,000. We couldn't afford it."

Deputies arrested 105 people between Nov. 8, 2006 and Aug. 25, 2009 in connection with 90 grow houses - mostly traced back to the Miami area - who picked Highlands County and Central Florida for their crime spree. Tasked with storing hundreds of pounds of marijuana evidence, HCSO admittedly made mistakes. Overwhelmed, most of it went into temporary storage trailers, where the summer heat melted the grassy evidence in plastic bags. Crime labels too. It got so bad, Fennell and others had to wear biohazard suits just to go inside the trailers.

"We weren't the only ones that didn't know how to manage the process," Schrader said. Thankfully, new laws allowed for new evidence procedures, like photographs and analysis instead of storing tons of marijuana.

The newest problem is portable "Breaking Bad" methamphetamine labs. Since Highlands is larger than surrounding rural counties, it hosts DEA equipment, Fennell said.

Some of that $9.15 million must be spent to house that equipment, and even more on electrical systems. When bloody clothing is received, Fennell said, "We've got to have a proper ventilation system. You have to have separate filters on that."

"We also respond to a lot of death cases where people have been dead for a long time," Benton said. Modern labs have refrigerators, freezers, individual air conditioners, floor drains and water supplies to deal with decomposition. You want all those odors out of the building. The chemical odors are, some days, overwhelming."

"It's a health hazard," Fennell admitted.

"Commercial refrigerators are needed to store DNA evidence," Lethbridge said. "We are going to need more refrigeration for that. If a refrigerator fails, we've got to respond to it immediately. It can't wait until Monday morning." An alarm system notifies three people.

Surfaces should be stainless steel, not porous, so they won't retain germs and biohazards.

If vehicle evidence is moved to the new building, an automobile lift will be needed.

Crime scene investigators "have to get under the vehicle to look for fiber, blood, all kinds of things," Fennell said.

Labs need separate liquid chemical, powder and fuming rooms, Fennell said. A room is needed to dry bloody or wet clothing that's taken into evidence. The DNA processing room must be a clean room for cleanliness, temperature, humidity, and vibration controls to create an environment suitable for forensic science.

In the age of technology, a computer forensic tech needs space for three computers - one Apple, one PC, and one for smart phones.

Defense attorneys have a legal right to view the evidence against their clients, but that's difficult inside a secure jail. So an evidence viewing room is needed.

Scales are needed to properly weigh drugs when they come in, Gonzalez said, and video surveillance is needed for that area as well. If drug scales aren't certified, officers can lose a case in court.

For chain of custody reasons, guns, drugs and fine jewelry need separate evidence areas.

Secure parking is needed to segregate law enforcement vehicles from the public.

There are no mandates for much of the equipment, just national standards for all crime labs and forensic science, Fennell said.

"But there are best practices out there that we intend to try to follow," Benton said. "And we're looking into available grant funds for all of this," Benton said. "But what we have found thus far is that we are required to be accredited, or in the process, to be eligible for funds."

Commissioners have talked about expansion space for future decades, but Benton says that's not possible with 41,700 square feet.

"We're not even building for tomorrow, we're building for today," Benton said.

"We're building for our current needs," Schrader said. "There won't even be an extra closet."

Because the current sheriff's office will be vacated by law enforcement, correctional officers will have future space for detention, Benton said.

"We know it costs money," Benton said. "We are doing everything we can do make sure it doesn't impact their property taxes. None of it is coming from the general fund, which is their tax dollars."

This building is for the citizens, Schrader said. "It just houses the sheriff's office, so we can work the cases that respond to their needs."