Crime Scene Ethics: Take It or Leave It from Law Enforcement Technology at Officer.


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From the July 2005 Issue By Douglas Page Late one Sunday night, a pair of local vandals steal a high-performance SUV parked in the driveway of a California mountain retreat belonging to an Academy Award winning screenwriter. The incident is observed by the writer's spouse, who notifies the Kern County Sheriff. Within minutes, a deputy intercepts the stolen vehicle 18 miles away. When the suspects attempt to evade, a high-speed chase ensues. The suspects lose control of the vehicle on a curve. One suspect is killed. The driver escapes serious injury and is apprehended later hiding in a rest stop toilet. The coroner and sheriff's investigators process the scene. A deputy finds a notebook fluttering open in the wind against the fence containing what appears to be an early draft of a movie script entitled "Indiana Jones: The Miracle at Mecca." There are hand-written notes in the margin throughout,$25204 (1 of 7)6/27/2009 6:32:12 PM

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Crime Scene Ethics: Take It or Leave It

Crime Scene Ethics: Take It or Leave It from Law Enforcement Technology at

some of them signed by "Stephen." The deputy drops the binder in the weeds, then conceals it by kicking brush and gravel over it — so it can be retrieved later, after the scene is released. This incident is fiction. The dilemma of the deputy is not. This deputy, and many others, is aware of the market for crime scene and serial killer memorabilia on commercial Web sites. Ted Bundy's fingerprint chart ($15), death warrant ($15), and his last Christmas card ($1,200) can be purchased from the Web site www., as can animal bones and teeth from the Spahn Movie Ranch affixed to a Charles Manson letterhead and signed by the individual that obtained the items ($40). Items such as the clipped fingernails of serial killer Roy Norris have sold on eBay as well. The majority of forensic scientists realize it is illegal to remove objects from a crime scene without proper authorization. For ethically uncertain investigators, at least two state laws (Texas and California) now prohibit profiting from material taken from crime scenes. "It may seem obvious from both a legal and ethical point of view that one must not remove objects from crime scenes, particularly items such as televisions or jewelry, but it is less obvious when the items are deemed lost, such as small change found on a sidewalk or objects not typically regarded as private property," says Tracy Rogers, a professor in the anthropology department at the University of Toronto. Rogers recently published a paper titled "Crime Scene Ethics: Souvenir, Teaching Materials, and Artifacts," which was featured in the March 2004 "Journal of Forensic Sciences." Rogers' paper points out that while police and forensic specialists are ethically obliged to preserve the integrity of their investigation, and their agencies' reputations, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), as well as the Canadian Society of Forensic Science, provide no guidelines for crime scene ethics or the retention of items from former crime scenes. "Guidelines are necessary to define acceptable behavior relating to removing, keeping or selling artifacts, souvenirs or teaching specimens from former crime scenes, where such activities are not illegal, to prevent potential conflicts of interest and appearance of impropriety," Rogers says. When the law is explicit, ethical decisions are not always required to guide behavior, but the variety of crime scene types and circumstances facing forensic investigators produces many ambiguous situations. Guidelines$25204 (2 of 7)6/27/2009 6:32:12 PM

Crime Scene Ethics: Take It or Leave It from Law Enforcement Technology at

and protocols would help protect the credibility of the investigators and the integrity of the case, Rogers says. Tom Adair, a senior criminalist with the Westminister (Colorado) Police Department, says professional ethics is the cornerstone of the forensic scientist's integrity. Without ethical standards guiding conduct, there really isn't much point in trying to maintain professional standards, he said. "Souvenirs or mementos should never be removed from crime scenes simply because of their intrinsic value to the investigator," Adair says. "If one were to process a crime scene at the residence of a celebrity or sports icon, the removal of items for personal use would not only be unethical, it would also be illegal." Once items have been legally obtained as part of a criminal investigation, their disposition is generally guided by local agency policies. Some items, by law, must be returned to the owner, while other items may be deemed contraband or too dangerous for release. If an owner cannot be located, the item may be classified as "found" property and thus subject to disposition options ranging from destruction to conversion. Adair recommends an ethical litmus test when converting legally obtained items: Is the item being converted for the benefit of the individual or the organization? "If the item is being kept for the benefit of the individual then you may want to consider the ethical consequences of that decision," he says. Class action Investigators who might never consider removing artifacts from active or inactive crime scenes for personal gain may have a different opinion about collecting specimens for training or teaching purposes. "Should the reason for wanting an object influence the ethics involved in taking it?" Rogers wonders. Suppose the items in question are natural, such as a rock, shell or fragment of an animal skull. The rock may be of interest to an expert because it is unusual, but the shell and skull are of interest for training purposes. "The potential benefits of obtaining these items may be significant, but$25204 (3 of 7)6/27/2009 6:32:12 PM

Crime Scene Ethics: Take It or Leave It from Law Enforcement Technology at

does this justify the removal of objects from a crime scene?" Rogers asks. "Is it more acceptable for the expert to remove animal bones intended for teaching purposes than the rock that is coveted for beauty or profit?" Where professional societies do not have specific principles or protocols that apply to a situation, the investigator must rely on personal ethics for guidance. Provided there are no legal concerns about taking the objects from former crime scenes, Rogers says factors to consider when deciding to take or leave objects include the value of the item; whether there is a potential claim to ownership, as opposed to items that have been lost, abandoned or discarded; the purpose for taking (souvenir verses teaching aid); and intent to profit. Daryl Clemens, a crime scene technician in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has an even simpler solution. "For teaching specimens, I just make them myself," he says. "This is much easier, and ethically clear." Rogers offers two remedies to crime scene ethical dilemmas. One, apply a blanket rule that states: Never take/keep objects that are found during the course of a search, recovery or investigation, even if the object is of no forensic value, the scene has been released, and the objects are not on private property. "This conservative approach ensures that both the integrity of the site and reputation of the investigator are preserved, but it would, however, preclude opportunities to build valuable teaching collections," Rogers says. An alternative approach would be to permit the retention of objects with educational value, provided they are of no significance to the case, not removed until after the scene is released, there are no other legal concerns, and the item has no monetary value. "Obtaining permissions is important even when objects appear to have been thrown into the garbage or are not typically regarded as property, such as animal bones," Rogers says. Guidelines should strictly limit the type of object that may be removed from a scene, when the item may be removed, and who must be notified and grant permission for removal of the object, she says. Curtis Shane, secretary of the International Association for Identification's (IAI) Crime Scene Certification Board, has taken the lead in creating$25204 (4 of 7)6/27/2009 6:32:12 PM

Crime Scene Ethics: Take It or Leave It from Law Enforcement Technology at

certification programs for some of the various forensic disciplines. "The IAI as a member of the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations works to ensure the overall forensic profession has certain guidelines that are followed within each organization," Shane says. "It would be redundant to have the IAI, AAFS and others with individual codes of ethics for crime scene personnel." Forensic scientists are expected to perform their duties in a professional manner, but to some degree the taking of souvenirs and teaching specimens still depends on personal belief — where one draws the line and how the terms "professional manner" and "professional behavior" are perceived. Rogers says it is important to keep in mind that when subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness, the way others perceive the expert is more important than the way experts perceive themselves. Once credibility as an expert witness is compromised, it nearly impossible to recover in court. Clemens says ethics are important to avoid being burned on the witness stand. "If a defense attorney can win a case by attacking your character, they will," he says. "Why give them extra ammunition?" Douglas Page writes about science and technology from Pine Mountain, California. He may be contacted by e-mail at

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