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Evidence mounts in law enforcement storage rooms

FOND DU LAC, Wis. (AP) — Evidence in criminal cases is piling up quickly in law enforcement storage rooms, partly because of changes to Wisconsin law meant to help inmates overturn wrongful convictions.

The Fond du Lac Police Department has more than 50,000 pieces of evidence packed into three rooms and a caged area. Electronics, guns, swords, drugs and refrigerators with blood and DNA are among items mounting at the police station.

“Evidence rooms across the country are exponentially growing,” said Detective Lee Mikulec, the evidence custodian for Fond du Lac police. “(Space) is a huge issue for us. … As I retire or die, there will be people going back to these cases 20, 30 or 40 years from now and trying to make heads and tails of these reports.”

According to Mikulec and Fond du Lac police Capt. Steve Thiry, two factors are leading the stockpile of evidence: the importance of DNA testing in cases and changes to the way law enforcement disposes of evidence, according to the Fond du Lac Reporter.

A state law enacted in 2005 requires law enforcement to hold onto evidence until the convicts are out of prison and off probation. Then a letter from the defense attorney is needed to destroy the evidence. The law was passed to reduce wrongful convictions.

In Dodge County, Sheriff Todd Nehls said most drugs, like marijuana, are burned in a barrel after the suspect is sentenced.

The Fond du Lac police department and county sheriff’s office requires another officer to serve as a witness to confirm evidence is destroyed properly.

Mikulec said he’s looking into getting an incinerator that produces less smoke, which is better for the environment.

In North Fond du Lac, an officer once a year drives a load of guns to the Wisconsin State Crime Lab in Madison for disposal, said police Chief Darren Pautsch. He said Wisconsin law also allows law enforcement to retain confiscated weapons for use on the force or for training.

Guns used in suicides are kept for a year in case someone comes forward claiming the death was a homicide, Mikulec said.

Illegal weapons, like brass knuckles and butterfly knives, along with legal knives used in crimes that are not reclaimed by the owner are melted down at scrap yards, Thiry said.

The fate of other evidence, like electronics and jewelry, depends on how it was originally received.

“We try to find the original owner and return it to them,” Thiry said. “… If that fails, it becomes our property. We have an auction and it goes to the highest bidder. A lot of the proceeds go to the Wisconsin (Common) School Fund.” That provides money to public school libraries around the state.

Law enforcement can also take custody of vehicles used in crimes. Some departments sell them at auctions or use them as a trade-in to help pay for new vehicles.

Information from: The Reporter, http://www.fdlreporter.com

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