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Law 101: Legal Guide for the Forensic Expert

A Chain of Custody: The Typical Checklist

A picture of a chain
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (see reuse policy).

Documenting the chain of custody literally requires each person who touches an item of evidence to sign for its possession. Generically, the term refers to the ability to track tangible evidence items. A typical chain of custody checklist might include the following items:

  1. The field location of the item. The geographical location where the item was found or observed, including a careful log entry and, if necessary, a photograph of the location.

  2. How the item was preserved. Evidence items must be bagged, packaged or otherwise handled in such a fashion that the evidentiary value is not destroyed. Appropriate containers should bear complete ID tags and labels.

  3. Who was part of the chain of physical custody. Each person who handles the item should make a log entry and receipt of the fact that they handled the evidence. As the item passes from person to person, ultimately to a laboratory or storage area, a chain of receipts should be created. No question should ever exist at trial or a hearing that concerns missing items, mishandling or contamination of items, mislabeling of items, destruction of items (other than in special circumstances where destructive tests are required), or breaks in the chain of custody that might jeopardize evidence admissibility.

For more on destructive testing, including steps to follow, see Report Writing and Supporting Documentation, Retaining Samples for Future Testing.

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