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EVIDENCE WITHHELD? ITEMS SEIZED BY LAPD OFTEN DON'T MAKE IT BACK TO RIGHTFUL OWNERS.

Byline: Lisa Van Proyen Staff Writer

As much as 36 percent of the evidence that Los Angeles police collected last year ended up marked for destruction or auction, even though the owners could have been found, the Daily News has learned.

Police officials said Friday the problem is a result of antiquated computers, crowded and unorganized evidence warehouses and overworked personnel who lack training.

``It's a bit of a Herculean task,'' said Cmdr. David Kalish, the department's top spokesman. ``We have an obligation to attempt to return it to the rightful owner. We need to take a look at systems issues to re-engineer and improve our service level and training.''

According to an internal police memorandum obtained by the Daily News, an audit found 13,246 items were returned to owners in 1999, some were kept as evidence, and 36 percent was destroyed or sold at auction. Police declined to release the audit or provide additional details.

Common items include cell phones, pagers, computers and jewelry. Others range from evidence from the infamous ``Black Dahlia'' murder case from 1947 to a dozen commercial sewing machines from a trademark infringement case.

Defense attorneys said the Los Angeles Police Department routinely fails to return property.

``When a cop seizes property from you, unless it's contraband or evidence in a pending case, they have to give it back to you. Instead, it goes down a sinkhole and it disappears,'' said Don Cook, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in police abuse cases.

In one case, he said, police entered a home in search of a man but took an exercise bar from his father, an amputee. ``The cops seize it, claiming that he was trying to use it as a weapon.''

The amputee was not charged, but it took six months and two demand letters from Cook to get back the bar. ``The only reason why he got it back was because an attorney was asking for it back.''

Kalish conceded the department has failed to meet its obligation, although he said only 27 percent of evidence is not returned. The remaining 9 percent involved credit cards that were reissued and license plates returned to the Department of Motor Vehicles, he said.

``Still, that's not acceptable,'' Kalish said. ``Because we're concerned, an operations committee has been formed. We're looking at more training.''

Kalish noted that each arrestee and victim is given a receipt for booked items. ``All you have to do is go to the front desk and you'd get it back.''

Not true, Cook said.

``We have people who have gone down asking for their property back and they have all kind of hoops to jump through. It's clear that the cops see no obligation to return the property. They have not really enforced any procedure for the right for the people to get their property back,'' he said.

The May 1, 2000, memorandum stemmed from an LAPD Property Disposition Audit from May 1999. It showed that since at least 1996, the rate of return has not markedly improved.

Lt. Winthrop Taylor, who headed the audit, said chief among the problems is tracking the evidence through at least three computer systems operated independently by the LAPD and the courts.

``They don't talk to one another,'' Taylor said.

Often, the entire text of the evidence report is not in the computer, requiring detectives and civilians to research the ownership, Taylor said. And frequently, the person listed in possession of the item is not the owner, requiring even more work.

``We have to do a better job to provide the critical information to the decision-makers,'' Taylor said.

An officer in the San Fernando Valley, who asked not to be identified, said he simply does not have the time to document names and addresses on each and every piece of evidence after making a large seizure.

``It makes you batty and you're running up overtime writing up the reports. Your supervisor asks you what's taking so long, so you take shortcuts and omit addresses or put ditto marks for a name,'' the officer said.

Sometimes, when judges order the property released, the information never makes it to the LAPD's computers, Taylor said.

``We're supposed to notify that arrestee to come pick up his stuff. I don't know whether we're doing that,'' Taylor said.

And then you've got the cases where owners don't want the property back - even though they are valuable. Perhaps, police said, the owners don't want further contact with officers.

Peterson said the department has repeatedly tried to return 6-foot-long models of ships from an arson investigation to the rightful owner - to no avail.

``We get everything here, from soup to nuts, drugs, guns and bloody sheets,'' said David Peterson, commanding officer of the LAPD's Property Division.

Generally, the LAPD returns items to owners within 90 days after they're stored at one of the department's 19 warehouses, so long as they're not deemed illegal, Kalish said. Otherwise they are incinerated, crushed, thrown out or auctioned off - with the city receiving about $100,000 annually from the sales.

Guns, knives and other steel items are placed into a 3,200-degree furnace at a fabrication plant and melted into rebar, largely used in the construction of the high-speed rail project in the Alameda Corridor, Peterson said.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Property room supervisor Steve Horne surveys some of the thousands of items of evidence at the LAPD Van Nuys Division.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 9, 2000
Words:909
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