Review of the Drug Enforcement Administrationís Custodial Accountability for Evidence Held at the Field Divisions

Report Number I-2004-003
January 2004


EXECUTIVE DIGEST

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) often seizes or takes custody of evidence while enforcing federal laws and regulations for controlled substances. In 1999, the General Accounting Office (GAO) identified weaknesses in the DEA's accountability over drug evidence that could increase the potential for theft, misuse, or loss, thus compromising the evidence for federal prosecution.1 In 2001, the DEA Administrator directed the DEA Office of Inspections (Office of Inspections) to review custodial accountability for five categories of evidence.2 After reviewing internal inspections conducted at all 21 DEA domestic field divisions from 1999 through 2000, the Office of Inspections concluded in its report entitled Review of Custodial Accountability for: Drug Evidence, Non-Drug Evidence, Seized Monies, Recovered Monies, and Technical Equipment, February 2001, that DEA's problems with custodial accountability remained unresolved.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) evaluated the DEA's progress in correcting custodial accountability problems identified in the DEA Office of Inspections' report. We found that more than two years after this review was released, and four years after the GAO determined that the DEA needed to strengthen accountability for drug evidence, the DEA still had not corrected deficiencies identified by DEA's internal inspections, including implementing program guidance, improving Headquarters support, or developing training. Consequently, some DEA field division staff continue to handle and store evidence improperly.3 According to our survey of Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs), DEA's recurring problems with custodial accountability have not yet adversely impacted federal prosecutions. However, our review of DEA's internal investigations of employee misconduct between June 2001 and September 2002 disclosed several instances of evidence loss.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

The DEA Has Failed to Correct the Deficiencies Identified as Contributing to Custodial Accountability Problems at the DEA Field Divisions. In 2001, the DEA Administrator directed the Office of Inspections to review five evidence program areas because custodial accountability problems continued to be reported during internal inspections. The Office of Inspections' review identified the following problems. The DEA did not have enough non-agent Evidence Custodians and was routinely using Special Agents to perform almost all of DEA's custodial duties.4 Special Agents' collateral evidence duties became the primary duty assignment in ten offices along the Southwest Border. Evidence Custodians needed clearer guidance and were uncertain about their responsibilities for maintaining logbooks, the DEA had no central point-of-contact for uniform evidence guidance, and Evidence Custodians lacked formal training.

The Office of Inspections issued six recommendations to resolve these recurring problems including conducting two workload studies, creating an Evidence Custodian Handbook, obtaining pre-printed logbooks, identifying a single headquarters point-of-contact to respond to inquiries regarding evidence, and developing comprehensive training for Evidence Custodians. In June 2001, the DEA Administrator approved the recommendations. We evaluated the DEA's implementation of the six recommendations and found that the DEA has implemented two, but has not implemented the remaining four. The DEA conducted two workload studies and hired more Evidence Custodians, but it still has not produced an Evidence Custodian Handbook, required the field to use pre-printed logbooks, identified a single point-of-contact that is an expert on evidence, or developed a comprehensive training program for Evidence Custodians.

When we asked why the DEA did not implement four of the six recommendations, an Office of Inspections official stated that the DEA distributed the report to its Executive staff, but it was never distributed to the appropriate offices for action. According to the official, the DEA Administrator who had requested the review left the agency shortly after approving the final report and recommendations, and new DEA management did not ensure that the recommendations were implemented. When we contacted officials from the two offices responsible for implementing the recommendations, the Office of Operations Management (OM) and the Office of Training (TR), they told us that they were unaware of the Office of Inspections' report, and their responsibility for implementing specific recommendations.

Below are the Office of Inspections' recommendations approved in June 2001 and their current implementation status.

Custodial Accountability Problems Persist at the DEA Field Divisions. We examined 13 internal inspection reports issued from June 2001 through January 2003 and found recurring and unresolved custodial accountability problems similar to those identified by the GAO in 1999 and by the Office of Inspections in 2001. These problems persist in field divisions despite mandatory annual reviews of the evidence program using Office of Inspections' checklists, despite certification that evidence program deficiencies were corrected, and despite the use of ENEDS. Eight of 13 field divisions (62 percent) were cited for infractions involving drug evidence, including improperly processed exhibits; improperly maintained logbooks; discrepancies in the seizure, submission, and reporting of drug and non-drug evidence; improper temporary storage; and no annual inventory or failure to reconcile inventory discrepancies. Three of the 13 field divisions (23 percent) were cited for infractions related to improper processing of seized monies, including non-DEA employees serving as custodians, improperly maintained logbooks, improper storage, or failure in conducting required audits.

In 1999, the GAO cautioned that DEA's weaknesses in the accountability over evidence could increase the potential for theft, misuse, or loss of such evidence, and could compromise federal prosecutions. The DEA responded to GAO by saying that the DEA has redundant controls in place to ensure that the integrity of evidence is maintained at all times and that shortcomings in one control will not result in an accountability problem.

To determine the validity of DEA's assertions and verify that DEA's recurring custodial accountability problems have not compromised evidence to be used in federal prosecutions, we surveyed 422 AUSAs responsible for prosecuting federal drug and asset forfeiture cases. All who responded reported that they believed that the DEA safeguards the integrity of seized drugs and monies, and none reported a federal prosecution adversely impacted by DEA's custodial accountability problems. However, when we reviewed DEA's internal investigations regarding the loss or theft of evidence, we found that since June 2001 the DEA imposed discipline in five cases involving accountability deficiencies that led to the loss of seized drugs or monies.

Office of Inspections' Recommendations for Guidance and Training Remain Valid. Because two years have passed since the DEA Administrator approved the Office of Inspections' recommendations, we evaluated whether the DEA should implement the remaining four recommendations. We concluded that the original recommendations are still valid. First, the DEA should ensure that all Evidence Custodians have pre-printed logbooks because the Office of Inspections continues to find problems with logbooks during field inspections. Using pre-printed logbooks would help resolve some of the problems identified by the Office of Inspections by ensuring that all Evidence Custodians use the same data fields to track evidence in their custody. Second, the DEA should appoint an expert point-of-contact for evidence issues. Evidence Custodians seek assistance from other Evidence Custodians because they have experience and expertise that OM does not have for interpreting guidance in the Special Agents Manual. As a consequence, Evidence Custodians receive guidance from other Evidence Custodians that may or may not be correct, and DEA Headquarters does not have the opportunity to provide uniform guidance, track questions, and identify common trends to improve DEA evidence handling policies.

Third, the DEA should develop a handbook for Evidence Custodians because the Special Agents Manual does not currently outline standard operating procedures specifically for Evidence Custodians. In addition, some Evidence Custodian positions in smaller offices have frequent turnover, and an Evidence Custodian Handbook would provide greater uniformity in evidence handling. Fourth, the DEA should provide comprehensive training for Evidence Custodians because given the lack of available formal training, several DEA field divisions have developed their own written guidance and training for Evidence Custodians. This results in Evidence Custodian guidance and training that vary in quality and uniformity throughout the DEA. In contrast, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provides all of its Evidence Custodians with a booklet regarding pertinent evidence handling sections from its Manual of Administrative Procedures, and mandatory in-service training for one week.

RECOMMENDATIONS

We are making two recommendations to help the DEA improve custodial accountability over seized drugs and monies. We recommend that the DEA:

  1. Implement the Office of Inspections' four remaining evidence program recommendations by:

    1. Developing an Evidence Custodian Handbook,

    2. Requiring Evidence Custodians to use pre-printed logbooks,

    3. Identifying and designating a DEA employee with evidence custodian expertise to serve as the point-of-contact for all Evidence Custodians, and

    4. Developing a comprehensive training program for personnel assigned Evidence Custodians duties.

  2. Verify during field inspections that Evidence Custodians have an Evidence Custodian Handbook, use pre-printed logbooks, know the point-of-contact for evidence issues, and attend appropriate Evidence Custodian training.

Footnotes

  1. GAO, Seized Drugs and Weapons: DEA Needs to Improve Certain Physical Safeguard and Strengthen Accountability, AIMD-00-17, November 1999.

  2. Custodial accountability is defined as accounting for evidence completely, accurately, and promptly to help ensure that evidence is not compromised for federal prosecutions and that it is protected against theft, misuse, or loss.

  3. We focused on seized drugs and monies because their value increases the risk of theft, misuse, and loss.

  4. We use the term Evidence Custodian to include all DEA field division staff assigned evidence custodial duties in a full or part-time capacity.

  5. The DEA developed the Non-Drug Evidence Database System (NEDS) in the early 1990s and replaced it with the Enhanced Non-Drug Evidence Database System (ENEDS) in 1999. Non-Drug Evidence Custodians use ENEDS to track non-drug evidence, bulk drugs, and seized and recovered monies checked in or out of the vault. Non-Drug Evidence Custodians also use ENEDS to facilitate the annual inventory of evidence within the vault and generate a variety of reports. As of January 1, 2003, ENEDS was available at 158 sites.