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Evidence rooms need routine upkeep by local departments

| Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 4:36 p.m.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Brentwood police Chief Robert Butelli talks about the evidence the department has stored, including a crossbow.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Brentwood police Chief Robert Butelli talks about the evidence the department has stored, including a crossbow.
Brentwood police Chief Robert Butelli talks about the evidence the department has stored, including a crossbow.
Rows of guns and a crossbow are included in the evidence that the Brentwood Borough Police Department has stored.

Even police departments need to invest in good housekeeping.

Each year, members of the Pleasant Hills Police Department — and other departments in Allegheny County — take time to inventory and empty their evidence rooms. The closet-size spaces might contain weapons, drugs, property and cash that have been seized. Weapons are stored in gun safes.

The procedure begins with a letter to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. requesting permission to dispose of items from cases that have been solved or have had a ruling. Departments in the county must complete their work by April 15.

In Pleasant Hills, it is up to officer Jason Woleslagle and Sgt. Bryan Frankenfield to take the inventory — all caught on a motion-activated camera. Once the count is made, police Chief Brian Finnerty signs off on the tally.

“It's a taxing evidence audit every year,” Woleslagle said Some of the main items in their evidence room, he said, are drugs and drug paraphernalia. Drugs from law-enforcement agencies across the county are destroyed at the Allegheny County Police Department at predetermined times. Weapons also are destroyed. While property is stored by the state, money is sent to the district attorney's office.

Not much property is sent to the state from Pleasant Hills, Woleslagle said.

“The DA uses the money for drug-enforcement costs and grants for police departments,” said Tom Swan, Allegheny County deputy district attorney. He is a part of the Assets Forfeiture Unit and has been with the department for 26 years.

His unit oversees all county police departments with respect to the seizure, handling and storage of property.

While money from evidence rooms is first returned to rightful owners, any taken during gambling and drug seizures can be redistributed to police departments that make requests, Swan said. Owners of items seized from burglary-ring arrests have 90 days to make claims and retrieve their property.

The distribution of money to departments is determined by what they bring in through arrests and what the needs of departments might be. Perhaps half of the 120 departments make requests each year.

“The city brings in the most because it has the most cases,” he said.

Contributing funds for witness protection is the No. 1 priority, and replacing police equipment is second.

Brentwood police Chief Robert Butelli also can count a crossbow among the items in his evidence room. Marijuana and stamp bags of heroin found during routine traffic stops also have found their way into the department's locker. Only he and two officers have access to the locker contents.

After officials from the district attorney's office visits a township or borough, items are stored in bins until the destruction date is set.

But some items are kept as evidence, depending on the type of charges filed, said. Property seized in the commission of felonies can be stored for five years; for misdemeanors, two years; and summary offenses, 90 days.

Found property and unclaimed items can be retained by the state for up to 99 years. A knife, for example, could be kept until the criminal died in prison just because the blade contained DNA.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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