RICHMOND (WRIC)—Last year, an ABC 8 News investigation exposed police agencies across the Commonwealth violating state law in how they report seized drugs. Now, lawmakers are taking action, but probably not in the way you'd expect.
In 2013, Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe uncovered that most of Virginia's law enforcement agencies don't properly document how they destroy drugs they take off our streets. Since the investigation first aired, the number of police departments complying with the law has more than tripled, but hundreds of departments, including Richmond's, are still failing to follow the law they're sworn to uphold.
Illegal narcotics seized off of Virginia's streets end up in police evidence lockers all across the Commonwealth, but they don't always stay where they belong.
In 2006, the Henry County sheriff and several deputies were indicted for dealing cocaine, marijuana and even guns from their evidence room. Just last year, Marion Police Chief Michael Dean Roberts was busted for drug dealing out of his evidence locker.
Mary Mann, a concerned ABC 8 News viewer, came to us with a great question: what's supposed to happen to drugs seized by police when the case they're involved in is closed? That inquiry led to our investigation exposing how the vast majority of Virginia police agencies are not filing the drug destruction reports, as required by state law.
"If the seized drugs are ending up on the street, everyone is in danger," Mann said.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Bobby Hawkins said, "It surprised me to find out today that we are not complying with state law."
To prevent seized drugs from ending back on the street, Virginia law dictates that drugs taken in by law enforcement are to be destroyed.
The Louisa County Sheriff's Office showed ABC 8 News photographic evidence detailing how it destroys evidence when it's no longer needed; the department goes to a landfill, deposits the drugs into a large hole and torches it.
In addition, a report detailing the type of narcotic, the officer who seized it and the method of destruction must be filed in both the circuit court and with the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. However, according to records obtained by ABC 8 News, in 2012, only 19 of Virginia's roughly 300 law enforcement agencies filed a drug destruction report with the Board of Pharmacy.
"If they're not obeying the law, I want to know why," Mann said.
So did we. Several law enforcement agencies, including the Chesterfield County Police Department, claimed it was an inadvertent oversight; each of the agencies ABC 8 News directly questioned about their lack of compliance vowed to take action.
"[Is this] something that your department is going to address now?" Lagoe asked Hawkins.
"Yes, as soon as I get back this afternoon, we will address it," Hawkins said.
Since the ABC 8 News investigation first aired in February 2013, the number of law enforcement agencies complying with the drug disposal law has more than tripled—from 19 in 2012 to 60 in 2013, but stills falls significantly short of 100 percent compliance.
Instead of an all-out effort to obey the law, there's now a law enforcement-backed effort underway in the General Assembly to do away with the mandatory reporting to the state of how narcotics are being destroyed.
State Senator Bill Carrico, a former state trooper, is sponsoring a Virginia Sheriffs' Association-backed bill to end police agencies' duty to file drug destruction reports with the Board of Pharmacy.
"Is there enough accountability in Virginia for what happens with drugs once they're taken off the streets?" Lagoe asked Sen. Carrico.
"Oh, absolutely," Carrico answered. "Policing the police is always a hard thing to do, but I think integrity in that department depends upon who's appointed the head of it."
Law enforcement heads across the Commonwealth contend filing a drug destruction report in two places—with their own court and the Virginia Board of Pharmacy—is, in a word, ludicrous.
"We're going to tell them about a dime bag of marijuana, and they file it in a file cabinet," said Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts.
That brings us to another disturbing issue: the drug destruction reports that have been filed with the Board of Pharmacy are simply thrown into a file cabinet; the state doesn't do anything with them—no analysis, no database, no increased accountability.
"What are the checks and balances?" Roberts asked. "What are we trying to get out of it?"
Sheriff Roberts says his checks and balances come from being an accredited agency; an outside body comes in and audits all of his evidence files.
"As a sheriff, I have so much power," Roberts said. "So much power, that it almost can be scary and people abuse it. So, I tell this accreditation body, ‘Come in and inspect me.'"
An ABC 8 News inspection found his department and numerous others are not fully in compliance with the drug destruction reporting law.
"I certainly can't be upset that you've educated law enforcement in Virginia about [the] statute, about reporting," Roberts said.
Sheriff Roberts says agree or disagree, the law is the law, and he and Virginia's other top cops need to follow it.
"I got 108," Roberts said. "I got to file ‘em and I'm gonna get in compliance with the law."
So do more than 200 other police agencies throughout the Commonwealth.
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