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Criminal – Certificate Of Analysis – Chain Of Custody – Cocaine

Although the arresting officer’s testimony about the packaging of the cocaine rocks presented a slightly different picture than the description of the packaging after it came back from the crime lab, the commonwealth proved the chain of custody and the Supreme Court of Virginia upholds defendant’s cocaine conviction.

During his testimony, the officer examined the evidence bag that he put the plastic baggie in when he arrested defendant. As he displayed the evidence to the court, the officer testified that the evidence bag had on it his signature, the date the evidence bag had on it, the date the evidence was recovered, and the case number. He also stated the seals on the evidence bag were intact. Thus, the officer’s testimony establishes that from the time the evidence was obtained from defendant until its receipt by the laboratory, the evidence bag that contained the plastic baggie was not tampered with or altered.

When the commonwealth introduces a certificate of analysis as evidence of the chain of custody of the material described in the certificate, the certificate of analysis serves as prima facie evidence of the chain of custody of the material tested during the time the evidence is in the custody of the laboratory.

Although the officer’s description of the item and the laboratory’s description of the item do not correspond exactly, the circuit court found they were not contradictory. The officer’s description of the item focused on the number of pieces of cocaine contained in the plastic baggie while the laboratory’s description focused on the packaging of the cocaine that was inside the plastic baggie.

The circuit court determined that these descriptions are not contradictory because the laboratory’s description does not state the number of pieces of cocaine that were in the individual baggie corners or in the plastic baggie that contained the baggie corners.

Although the officer did not mention the baggie corners in his written description of the item in the request for examination, he referred to the “knotted baggie” as still available when he described the packaging as being different. Thus, according to the officer, the baggie he sent to the laboratory for analysis contained baggie corners.

The circuit court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the certificate of analysis into the evidence when the court, which observed the evidence, made a factual finding that the discrepancies between the descriptions on the request for examination form and certificate of analysis were not contradictory, and the commonwealth presented sufficient evidence to establish with reasonable certainty that there had been no alteration or substitution of the evidence.

Judgment of the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Herndon v. Commonwealth (Millette, J.) No. 091265, June 10, 2010; Va.Ct.App.; S. Jane Chittom, APD; Rosemary V. Bourne, AAG; Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, AG, for appellee. VLW 010-6-069, 9 pp

VLW 010-6-069

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