Written by attorney Patrick Mahaney

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

The importance of proving the chain of custody of a blood sample was demonstrated in Miller v. State, 484 So. 2d 1203 (Ala. Cr. App. 1986) where the investigating state trooper in a traffic fatality case secured blood samples from the defendant at the local hospital, then took the blood sample vials to the Jacksonville state trooper office, "put it in the envelope, sealed it and initialed it" then placed the sample in the department's outgoing mail, not the U.S. mail. Three days later, the sample was delivered to the Department of Forensic Science lab in Birmingham for analysis. There was no accounting for the location or security of the blood samples for the three days prior to delivery at the DFS lab.

Although the use of the U.S. Mail attaches a legal presumption that materials are delivered in substantially the same condition as when placed in the mailbox or post office, no such presumption is attached to "regular outgoing mail" delivery service used by a state agency. "To establish a sufficient predicate for admission into evidence it must be shown that there was no break in the chain of custody. ... Where 'missing links' are involved in the chain of custody the question presented is one of admissibility rather than credibility." (emphasis in original), citing Whetstone v. State, 407 So. 2d 854, 859- 60 (Ala. Cr. App. 1981).

In the case of Green v. Alabama Power Company, 597 So. 2d 1325 (Ala. 1992), a wrongful death case where the defense was contributory negligence on part of the decedent, fluid samples were taken during the autopsy which, after analysis, allegedly showed the presence of a controlled substance. The plaintiff objected to admissibility of the sample where the analysis of blood and other body fluid samples were shipped by U.P.S. delivery service and subsequently analyzed at the DFS laboratory.

In Green, the Alabama Supreme Court held: "In chain-of-custody cases involving "specimens taken from the human body," the proponent of the evidence must demonstrate where and by whom the specimen was kept and through whose hands it passed." J. Richardson, Modern Scientific Evidence, 13.14a ( Ed. 1974). Gothard v. State, 452 So. 2d 889, 890 (Ala. Cr. App.), cert. striken, 450 So. 2d 479 (Ala. 1984). Suttle v. State, 565 So. 2d 1197, 1199 (Ala. Cr. App. 1990) (reversing vehicular homicide conviction for failure of prosecution to account for blood sample during four day interval between delivery of unsealed sample to police officer and reception at laboratory.)" The Supreme Court held in Green that a similar four day gap between the date of the blood draw and the subsequent delivery to the forensic laboratory, without explanation as to the sample's location or control, would render the sample inadmissible into evidence.

The case of Jones v. City of Summerdale, 677 So. 2d 1289 (Ala.Cr.App. 1996) is illustrative of the requirement for live witness testimony to establish both the manner of the blood draw and establishment of the chain of custody. In Jones, the Court of Criminal Appeals held conformity with evidentiary predicate was required for the admission of blood tests as well as compliance with chain of custody requirements.

The Jones case holds that results of a blood test administered to determine blood alcohol content may be received into evidence, provided a proper predicate is laid. The state must first lay a sufficient predicate in support of such evidence to indicate its reliability. A lab report indicating the results of a blood alcohol test, without any supporting testimony, invites reversible error. In Jones, the state did not present y testimony regarding the blood test performed on the appellant. The Court of Criminal Appeals held if the State elects to offer the results of blood alcohol test into evidence, the State must comply with the rules of evidence.

The Court's opinion stated: "In this case the state offered the blood test into evidence without any testimony indicating the reliability of the test, who performed the test, or the circumstances under which the test was performed. The trial court received the test without any foundation whatsoever having been established. The trial court erred to reversal when it incorrectly received the blood evidence into evidence. Jones v. City of Summerdale, 677 So. 2d at 1291.

In the case of Nelson v. State, 551 So. 2d 1152 (Ala. Cr. App. 1989), citing the prior case of Kent v. Singleton, 457 So. 2d 356 (Ala. 1984), the Court of Criminal Appeals held it fundamental to establishing admissibility that blood evidence must demonstrate the chain of custody requirement. Without establishing a strict chain of custody, the sample results are inadmissible into evidence. The evidence in the Nelson case did not disclose the identity of the person who withdrew the blood sample at the hospital. The trial court properly refused to admit the test results under ? 32-5A-1 94. The results were not admissible under general evidence principles as there was no proof that the test performed on the defendant was conducted according to accepted scientific methods and there was no proof of the qualifications of the person who withdrew the blood sample. The Court further held the mere fact that the blood sample was taken at a hospital does not insure its reliability.

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