Written by attorney Patrick Mahaney

Alabama Law on the Collection of Blood Samples - Part II "Chain of Custody"

By statute and decisional law, the state must identify the person and offer into evidence the credentials of the duly authorized person who drew the blood sample from the defendant. The blood sample cannot be presumed to have been taken in the correct manner unless the blood draw is established by the person who took the sample. The law of blood test admissibility in Alabama courts is extensive and clear: blood test evidence must be established by both predicate and chain of custody. These two requirements are properly subject to thorough cross-examination by defense counsel.

The leading Alabama case in this area regarding admissibility of the results of laboratory samples is Ex parte Holton, 590 So.2d 918 (Ala. 1991) which examined in detail the theory of chain of custody. In order to establish a proper chain, the State must show to a reasonable probability that the object is in the same conditions, and not substantially different from, its condition at the commencement of the chain. The court requires that proof be shown on the record with regard to exact chain of custody of the sample.

The chain of custody is composed of "links." A link is anyone who handled the item. The State must identify each link from the time the item was seized. In order to show a proper chain of custody, the record must show each link and also the following with regard to each link's possession of the item: 1) the receipt of the item; 2) the ultimate disposition of the item, i.e., transfer, destruction, or retention; and 3) the safeguarding and handling of the item between receipt and disposition. If the State, or any other proponent of demonstrative evidence, fails to identify a link or fails to show for the record any one of the three criteria as to each link, the result is a "missing" link, and the item is inadmissible. If, however, the State has shown each link and has shown all three criteria as to each link, but has done so with circumstantial evidence, as opposed to the direct testimony of the "link," as to one or more criteria or as to one or more links, the result is a "weak" link. When the link is "weak," a question of credibility and weight is presented, not one of admissibility. See, also, Lee v. State, 748 So. 2d 904 (Ala. Cr. App. 1999).

In regards to blood samples, all three Alabama appellate courts have adhered to the 'link' analysis for establishing the chain of custody. In Creel v. State, 618 So.2d 132 (Ala. Cr. App. 1992), a vehicular homicide case where chain of custody of the blood sample was questioned, the Court found the state did not establish a chain of custody with respect to vials of blood drawn from the defendant following an automobile accident. The transmittal forms accompanying vials upon their arrival at Department Forensic Sciences in Auburn were not signed or initialed by person who shipped blood from Dothan, and forensic sciences investigator in Dothan who collected blood from investigating officers and placed it in a refrigerator with the transmittal forms could not unequivocally testify that he was person who shipped blood.

The Courts generally apply a "reasonableness" test in regards to maintaining security over the blood samples. The case of Wallace v. State, 574 So.2d 968 (Ala. Cr. App. 1990) is instructive. In that case, the nurse on duty drew two blood samples at the hospital and handed two sealed samples to the investigating police officer. The officer then placed the vials inside a sealed Styrofoam box (referred to in the Court's opinion as 'a DUI evidence kit') in a refrigerator at City Hall where the kit remained over the weekend. The refrigerator was not locked or secured and was accessible to any number of city employees. The following Monday morning, the officer retrieved the still- sealed kit and delivered it to the forensics lab for analysis. The forensic analysis testified that there was nothing to indicate the kit had been tampered with. The Court found the chain of custody of blood samples was sufficient despite evidence indicating some carelessness in storage of the samples .

The Court noted: "Although the evidence indicates some carelessness in the storage of the blood samples, we find that the evidence of the test results was properly admitted. '[I]t is presumed that the integrity of evidence routinely handled by governmental officials was suitably preserved "[unless the accused makes] a minimal showing of ill will, bad faith, evil motivation, or some evidence tampering." United States v. Roberts, 844 F. 2d 537, 549-50 (8th Cir.). Applying those principles to the facts of this case, we find that the State proved to a reasonable probability that the blood samples were the same as, and not substantially different from, the samples as they existed at the beginning of the chain. Ex parte Williams, 548 So. 2d 518, 520 (Ala. 1989); Suttle v. State, 565 So. 2d 1197 (Ala. Crim. App. 1990)."

Another example of circumstantial evidence to support the chain of custody requirement was found in Bartlett v. State, 600 So. 2d 336 (Ala Cr. App. 1991), the appellant's blood was drawn by a hospital nurse and the blood sample vial shortly thereafter transported to the hospital laboratory for analysis. The nurse drawing the blood labeled the vial with the appellant's name and placed the sample in a pre-vacuum sealed vial. The lab technician responsible for the analysis testified that he would not have accepted the sample for analysis had it not been in a sealed condition upon arrival at the hospital lab. The fact that a ward clerk transported the sample to the laboratory for analysis did not defeat the chain of custody. In Bartlett, the Court stated: "To establish a sufficient predicate for admission into evidence it must be shown that there was no break in the chain of custody. Identification and continuity of possession must be sufficiently established to afford ample assurance of the authenticity of the item. Ex parte Yarber, 375 So. 2d 1231, 1234 (Ala. 1979). 'A party need not negative the remotest possibility of substitution, alteration or tampering with the evidence." Whetstone v. State, 407 So.2d 854, 859 (Ala. Cr. App. 1981) (emphasis in original).

Likewise in Moorman v. State, 574 So.2d 953 (Ala.Cr.App. 1990), the Court found the chain of custody sufficient where, in prosecution for criminally negligent homicide following fatal automobile collision, the chain of custody for a blood sample taken from the defendant was sufficiently established even though to "links" in the chain (the unit secretary at the hospital who sent the sample to the laboratory and the person from the laboratory who picked up the sample) did not testify . The evidence was sufficient to establish chain of custody for victim's body, even though person who transported body to morgue and county coroner who received body did not testify.

However, in Suttle v. State, 565 So.2d 1197 (Ala. Cr. App. 1990), the chain of custody not established, and therefore the blood sample was deemed inadmissible. The appellant's conviction for vehicular homicide was reversed because the state failed to account for the whereabouts of the blood samples drawn from the defendant during the four days between the time the samples were taken by the nurse and the time they were received by the state's forensic expert. The nurse who gave the blood samples to the trooper who did not testify. The forensic expert received the blood through the U.S. mail. The toxicologist who received the samples could not testify where the samples had been located during the previous four days. The court held it was reversible error to allow test results conducted on a blood sample when there was not a sufficient chain of custody for the sample.

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