Poor handling of seized guns, drugs could endanger criminal court cases: review

Court cases against accused criminals could be tossed out because of improper control and handling of seized goods — from drugs to firearms — by Canada’s border agency, says an internal federal audit.

OTTAWA — Court cases against accused criminals could be tossed out because of improper control and handling of seized goods — from drugs to firearms — by Canada’s border agency, says an internal federal audit.

The Canada Border Services Agency is responsible for seizing illegal or dangerous goods under the Customs Act to help protect public safety.

The examination found several weaknesses in how the border agency manages those items — particularly how they store and track them at supposedly secure facilities.

A high level of control is needed as the goods could be required as evidence for prosecutions, the audit report says.

However, auditors found almost half of border agency storage facilities did not meet the organization’s physical security standards.

Confiscated drugs and firearms that had not been properly disabled were openly displayed.

In addition, precursor chemicals used to make illegal street drugs were piling up, with more than 1,900 seizures in storage as of last December. The reviewers said the chemicals could pose health and safety risks to staff and may be vulnerable to theft.

Three in every five of the storage sites visited did not continuously monitor access to seized items through the use of motion detectors, the report found. “Unauthorized intrusion and loss of seized goods are a risk when facilities are not continuously monitored or when access is not adequately controlled.”

This could affect court proceedings if the chain of custody of a seized item — an important element in a prosecutor’s case, given the possibility of tampering — were ever questioned, the review says.

The audit found significant improvement on the eventual disposal of drugs, firearms and child pornography.

But the review says overall the border agency had made only minimal progress since a similar audit was conducted five years ago. “The weaknesses identified in the 2009 audit related to physical security and access controls persist.”

The previous audit found that inventory control was inadequate, with only six per cent of offices visited maintaining up-to-date logs. Agency officials considered installing a new electronic system but it did not go ahead due to “resource constraints,” the latest review says.

NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said he wasn’t surprised at the general lack of improvement from the last evaluation.

“Because since then the Conservatives have been hacking away at the budget of the CBSA, and one of the things they said is, we’re going to cut back-office functions,” he said Friday.

“Well, this is a back-office function. You can’t cut those things they call administrative and still have the system function.”

Border agency figures show that while spending has increased in some areas — such as support for the Canada-U.S. border security pact — it has decreased in other areas to help the government achieve a balanced budget.

The auditors made seven recommendations, including stronger management oversight, updated procedures to ensure the continuity of the evidence chain, better inventory controls and proper monitoring of storage areas.

The border agency agreed with the recommendations, saying steps had already been taken to address many of the shortcomings.

For instance, in March the agency was given interim permission to dispose of current and future precursor chemical seizures.