Police chuck tons of old evidence

Photo by David Gordon

Those who watch reality shows about hoarders might have some inkling of the scene that confronted recently appointed Saugerties Deputy Police Chief Joe Sinagra, lately of the Town of Ulster Police Department, when he stepped into the department’s evidence locker. It was completely full. After a lengthy process of elimination, several tons of material were loaded up and brought to the town’s transfer station.

The load of debris destroyed this month included assorted weapons, drugs, paperwork and other miscellany. Weapons, in general, must be destroyed, Sinagra said, though if a police department can demonstrate to the district attorney that a particular weapon meets a special department need, it can be allowed to keep the weapon. Such cases are rare. A weapon that was actually used in a crime cannot be retained. None of the weapons in the Saugerties locker will be kept.

Among the more unusual items in the locker are illegal fireworks and evidence in arson cases, which can consist of burnt materials or containers of accelerants, Sinagra said.

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“Some of the evidence in our locker has been there for 30 years,” Town Councilman Fred Costello reported at a recent town board meeting. So far, 30 firearms have been destroyed, he said, with many more still to be dealt with. Sinagra estimated that the department has some 40 weapons to dispose of, with 15 slated for the next round. The New York State Police have a limited capacity to deal with the weapons, and they must send them in batches, he explained.

“If we can locate the owners of evidence, we return it to them,” the recently-appointed deputy chief said. “We had evidence and records from 214 cases that have been closed.”

How long the materials must be kept varies with the type of case and the nature of the evidence, Sinagra said. In general, once the time for an appeal has passed, evidence in a case can be discarded. Where some more serious crimes, such as murder, are involved, the evidence must be kept longer, even indefinitely.

The evidence locker consists of a room with heavy concrete walls, a ceiling designed to resist break-ins and a locked door to which only two officers have the keys.

Surprisingly, such material as payroll records for town employees must be kept longer than some types of evidence. These records must be held for 30 years, starting when the employee leaves the department or retires, Sinagra said.

When Sinagra served as deputy chief of police in the town of Ulster, he used a bar coding system to make it easier to keep track of evidence. He’d like to do the same in Saugerties. A system of quarterly spot checks to assure that evidence is not kept beyond the necessary date is part of the plan, he said.

Police Chief Louis Barbaria praised Sinagra, saying he has worked hard to get the evidence locker into shape. He has worked into the night, he said, along with other officers who are helping with the job. Sinagra said he and his crew once worked as late as midnight, and on several occasions until 10 p.m.

Some evidence consists of cash, which is held in a special account, and in this case every effort is made to locate the owner and return it, Sinagra said. However, in some cases the owner cannot be located, and the department may use the money for certain purposes. “We can’t use it to offset payroll,” he said. “We are allowed to use it for equipment, but we must show the amount we spend on what it is for.” Seized money cannot be used for payroll.

This information is provided to the district attorney’s office or the federal government.

While Sinagra was working for the town of Ulster, out of some $30,000 seized, the town retained $18,000, he said. l

 

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