South Carolina Supreme Court Holds Broken Chain of Custody for Drug Evidence Requires Reversal of Conviction
by Dale Chappell
In a case where the State failed to prove the complete chain of custody of the evidence it relied on at trial, the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled the evidence inadmissible and that the conviction had to be reversed.
After Timothy Pulley was stopped by two Laurens police cruisers for speeding, police eventually found a small amount of cocaine in a shopping bag inside his vehicle. During trial, defense counsel exposed that the chain of custody of the cocaine prior to its placement in the police department’s evidence locker had some holes. Officer Craven testified at trial that the seized cocaine was left on the hood of officer Brewer’s patrol car when he left the scene. Craven then testified that he was the one who placed the cocaine in the department’s evidence locker at the station. How did the cocaine get from the scene to the police station? Pulley’s lawyer asked.
Brewer initially testified that he did not transport the cocaine to the station. But “refreshed” by the dash-cam video of the incident, Brewer changed his story and “recalled” bringing the cocaine to the station. The evidence custodian then testified that Craven did not personally give him the cocaine to put in the locker, even though the chain of custody form indicated he did. That was a mere technicality, the custodian asserted, because they normally check that box.
Despite the inconsistencies, the trial court determined that “even though officer Brewer did not testify that he handed the bag to Craven ... the logical assumption is that he did.” A jury found Pulley guilty, and he appealed. The Court of Appeals certified his appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The State “must establish a complete chain of custody as far as practicable” when offering evidence of drugs or blood at trial. State v. Sweet, 647 S.E.2d 202 (S.C. 2007). While a court may “fill gaps” when other evidence identifies the person handling the evidence, absent that, the “analysis must not be left to conjecture.” Id.
“Brewer testified unequivocally that he did not take the cocaine from the scene,” the Supreme Court noted. And Brewer’s testimony that after reviewing the video he remembered transporting the cocaine was doubtful, the Court said: “The dash-cam video does not reflect Brewer’s recollection.” Finally, Brewer admitted he did not sign any paperwork showing he transferred the cocaine to Craven.
“Although a perfect chain of custody is not required, a sufficient chain of custody requires more than the State presented in this case,” the Court concluded. Brewer’s conflicting testimony coupled with the State’s failure to prove how Craven obtained the cocaine after the drugs were last seen on Brewer’s hood “equates to conjecture,” the Court said. The State, therefore, failed to establish a “complete chain of custody” of the cocaine.
Accordingly, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed Pulley’s conviction and sentence. Justice James filed a concurring opinion to point out that Brewer’s contradictory testimony itself “called the integrity of the chain even more into question.” See: State v. Pulley, 423 S.C. 371 (2018).
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Related legal case
State v. Pulley
|Cite||423 S.C. 371 (2018)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|