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Based on the comments in the online section of The Lancaster News, it is obvious a lot of people have opinions on the new Evidence Preservation Act but don’t have a clue what the law actually requires. I would like to take this opportunity to answer some of the questions and comments regarding the Act.
Sheriff Barry Faile and his deputies do an outstanding job maintaining criminal case evidence under the old rules which have been in effect for decades. Cuts in the state budget and the new state law drastically changed the rules under which law enforcement agencies, such as the Lancaster Sheriff’s Office, have to operate. The old rule has been to maintain evidence presented at trial until appeals have been completed and then it could be disposed of. If a suspect pled guilty, evidence could be disposed of at that time. In many major cases, SLED came up to process the scene and stored the evidence they collected.
The new reality is that SLED no longer has the resources to routinely process major crime scenes. Sheriff Faile had the foresight to send two deputies to become certified crime scene specialists. He now handles this responsibility with local resources. This means evidence formerly stored in Columbia is now stored in Lancaster.
The second major change is that the new law covers all evidence collected, not just that used at trial. In the recent case involving a child shot in a vehicle, this means storing the entire vehicle in a climate controlled environment to preserve DNA evidence within the vehicle as well as ballistic evidence. Gone are the days we could just store and maintain the items actually introduced at trial.
The third and most daunting change is how long evidence must be held. If a person pleads guilty, telling the judge and the world he or she committed the crime and are taking full responsibility for their actions, all evidence related to that case must now be stored for seven years, just in case maybe the perpetrator changes his mind while in jail. If a person pleads not guilty but is found guilty, that time period ramps up to 30 years. The exceptions are if the prisoner is released or dies in jail. There is a proviso that a judge can grant a waiver but what judge would issue an order contrary to black letter law?
Just as information, the current Sheriff’s Office has two secure evidence rooms, each about 15-feet by 15-feet in size. Adequate space to comply with the new law? Hardly.
One online poster commented that it’s not like they just gave the sheriff a year to comply and why couldn’t he have seen this coming and planned for it. As a matter of fact, the grace period for the effective date of the act was six months. Faile is a good sheriff but he is not a fortune teller who can see into the future about what new requirements the state will impose on local government with no funding to pay for compliance.
Now that we’ve covered the new act, it is time to address other issues. Several empty buildings were suggested to house evidence. They were (1) the Founders building on Covenant Place. It went to the city and not the county. (2) The Founders building on U.S. 521. It is a standard metal building and not a high-security facility such as a customer branch. It housed warehoused forms and supplies and a call center, not items that needed high security such as customer deposits or in our case, criminal evidence. (3) The Grace Bleachery. We could build a new facility cheaper than we could get the home office in Brazil to sell us that facility. The bottom floor of the county administration building was mentioned. While it would be a stop gap measure at best, it lacks refrigeration for DNA evidence. It isn’t even air-conditioned or heated as it is used for a supply warehouse. It certainly could not handle large evidence such as a vehicle.
While we are looking for existing space, the unique demands to comply with the law make this a formidable task.
Next it was suggested that Sheriff Faile was only grandstanding to obtain a new facility. It is no secret that that the Lancaster County Detention Center and Sheriff’s Office are overcrowded.
In my conversations with Sheriff Faile, he has always recognized that the detention center is the priority. The sheriff’s correctional staff does a superb job managing too many people in too little space. The S.C. Department of Corrections inspects the facility annually and the only write-ups relate back to the overcrowding issue. Right about now someone will think about Sheriff Joe and tents. I can only say that Arizona law does not apply in South Carolina. Neither the sheriff nor County Council can amend state regulations and state statutes; those are what we have to follow.
I would note that Sheriff Faile, along with local court and prosecutorial staff, have been studying ways to reduce the jail overcrowding problem with innovative approaches such as tracking systems for home detention. Admittedly these programs are not popular with a large segment of the populace that wants to “lock ‘em all up and throw away the key.” When faced with the bill to build and provide the necessary staff, people are suddenly up in arms about raising taxes to pay the bill. I would like to add that Sheriff Faile is a proactive fiscal conservative in trying to delay the need for jail construction as long as possible.
If any reader doubts the conditions at the Sheriff’s Office are not as Sheriff Faile has described, I would encourage them to call and schedule a tour of the facilities.
It seems Sheriff Faile is being pilloried for calling attention to serious problems he is facing. Were he not to call attention to the issues, the same people complaining now that he is doing so would call for his head for engaging in a cover-up to hide the issues from the public.
While no sheriff is perfect, I can tell you from conversations with other county leaders that Barry Faile is far better than what most counties have. I would again encourage any reader to visit the Sheriff’s Office, talk with the sheriff and his outstanding deputies, and see firsthand the challenges they face and how they adapt and overcome to provide high quality law enforcement service to Lancaster County.