People v. Rivera
The defendant was arrested after being involved in a “buy and bust” operation. The defendant was under surveillance by a police officer and was seen congregating on a street corner with two individuals where it appeared that he sold them a controlled substance. The police officer then approached the defendant to buy two glassine envelopes of “white eagle” which was a code name for heroin in exchanged for money. After the completion of the transaction, the defendant was then arrested and several glassine envelopes from the defendant pockets were seized. Six envelopes which bore the emblem “white eagle” were sent to the laboratory to test the substance in a manila envelope with the arresting officer initials on all the packets. There was evidence that prior to the envelopes being sent to the laboratory they were in the possession of another officer other than the arresting officer.
At the trial, there was an issue of the chain of custody of the envelopes seized by the officer being broken. At the trial, the arresting officer identified the envelopes recovered with the use of his initials but did not testify that the recovered envelopes were taken from the defendant or given to him by the defendant. The trial judge stated that there was a gap in the chain of custody and urged the defendant’s Bronx Criminal Attorney to make an objection. The People, however, did not call any other witness to vouch that there was no gap in the chain of custody between when the drug was first recovered and when they were at the police station.
Notwithstanding the issue in the chain of custody, the defendant was convicted of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree after a jury trial. The defendant appealed the conviction on the ground there was a gap in the chain of custody arresting officers’ first possession of the drugs and subsequent possession of them at the station.
The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the conviction and dismissed the charge against the defendant as the People failed to prove that evidence recovered at the time of the arrest were separated at the station house from other narcotics recovered from different persons on the same day or time. The People had the obligation of ensuring that the narcotics acquired during an arrest was the same introduced into evidence and that it was not tampered with. It was essential that there was an unbroken chain of custody to show that the evidence was accurate and authentic. Where there is a deficiency in the chain of custody, it affects the weight of the evidence rather than its admissibility. However, where there is a failure to provide assurance that the item introduce into evidence was identical to the one recovered at the time of the arrest then the admissibly is affected rather its weight. Therefore, the evidence introduced was inadmissible because the arresting officer was unable to verify it was the same narcotics seized from the defendant. It was possible that the officer commingled the drug envelopes before they were admitted into the laboratory.
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