Resource Center

article / May 2, 2023

What law enforcement should know about collecting digital evidence

Digital evidence collection makes storage, preservation, and access control more efficient

As more and more of our lives take place online and on personal electronic devices like smartphones, collecting digital evidence properly has only grown more important. Just as physical evidence must be handled, stored and preserved according to rigorous legal standards, digital evidence collection and maintenance have to be properly executed for the information to be admissible in court proceedings. Because it’s so crucial to keep this evidence safe, law enforcement officials and legal teams should note these best practices for digital evidence collection, storage and preservation.

Digital evidence collection

What is digital evidence collection? This phrase refers to the extraction of digital information — photos, documents, metadata and so on — from sources such as hard drives, phones, computers and the cloud. This evidence is increasingly important across all forms of law enforcement, as phone calls, text messages, emails, video footage and other frequently used digital services can provide critical information about suspects’ whereabouts or activities.

Collecting digital evidence requires observing many of the same procedures as collecting physical evidence, including the chain of custody. Officers must document who was involved in the seizure, when and where it occurred, how it was conducted, and the state of the physical media upon collection, using photos and written descriptions to keep a record.

Other times, the digital files can be pulled straight from the recording device. For instance, if a CCTV camera records a crime, the investigator can download the original files from the digital video recorder (DVR). In these instances, it is important to download the original files, not a converted or compressed copy. 

When collecting digital evidence, officers and legal professionals run into everything from body-worn camera footage to massive spreadsheets. This evidence should be loaded into a Digital Evidence Management Solution as quickly as possible. Ideally, digital evidence storage systems should be able to properly store that evidence, tagging and categorizing it for easy access and collaboration. An automatic audit trail helps ensure the integrity of the evidence.

Axon Justice Premier provides a secure, centralized digital evidence store that makes trial prep and collaboration easy and safe. Contact us to learn more.

In some cases, things can truly be expedited through Axon Community Request. This solution enables Investigators to generate share links that are sent to witnesses who can load their recordings directly into Axon Evidence or Axon Justice Premier.

Digital evidence storage

In an ideal world, all digital evidence for a particular investigation would be stored in the same location. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, with 3.1 storage solutions being the average number of places digital evidence is stored. You might find evidence on thumb drives, CDs/DVDs, external drives, in the cloud and on local servers. Needing to manage all of these locations is time-consuming and not secure — it can be easy to lose or damage something like a DVD.

Instead, digital evidence should be stored on secure network servers, either hosted on-premises or in the cloud, with the latter typically allowing for faster collaboration among multiple users. Storage capacity should comfortably exceed the total file size of all digital evidence and accommodate the creation of real-time backups to prevent the loss of evidence in the event of server failure.

Evidence storage infrastructure should be scalable to ensure new evidence can be added to the system and retained for as long as required — through case adjudication and after the expiration of all applicable agency and statutory requirements. When disposal does ultimately take place, it should be done so according to Department of Justice regulations.

Digital evidence preservation

How is digital evidence preserved? Unlike physical evidence, it doesn’t require any kind of climate control, but it remains vulnerable to tampering and human error. Both can be prevented through the use of rigorous security measures that ensure only those who need access in the course of their work ever see the evidence. Any digital evidence system should be capable of the following security measures:

  • Limiting item or file viewing access to identified and authorized users

  • Tracking file access

  • Preventing the alteration of original data

  • Limiting and tracking the export of evidence copies to authorized users

  • Maintaining a detailed chain of custody with all access information

With these systems in place, digital evidence can be preserved indefinitely without fear of degradation or sabotage.

Benefits of digital evidence

There will always be a need for physical evidence, but digital evidence provides numerous advantages over its more traditional counterpart. For one, the storage of digital evidence via on-premises servers requires much less space than traditional filing systems. If the digital evidence system moves storage to the cloud, then storage itself takes up no physical space at all, saving on square footage. Freedom from physical and on-premises digital storage also means freedom from worries around climate control, fires or unauthorized physical access, as the data in question can only be accessed with proper credentials.

Digital evidence makes organizing evidence easier and more effective through the use of metadata and other tags. Officers processing the evidence can tag relevant data — time and date, incident location, responding officers — that make it much faster to recall the relevant piece of evidence when it’s needed down the line.

The automation offered by digital evidence can help to ensure consistent organizational strategies, saving short-staffed offices time by filling in relevant tags without the need for manual input. Automation makes chain of custody fast and simple, immediately generating audit trails for every piece of evidence in the system whenever they’re viewed or accessed.

Culling tedious menial labor saves time and money, but it also helps with staff retention. When the Colorado 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office implemented Axon Justice Premier, it found the service made staff more productive and less prone to burnout.

“Attorneys and support staff members don’t get as frustrated or feel so lost when they are in the system, which takes one more thing off their already full plates,” said supervising paralegal Jordan Weimer.

Justice Premier’s centralized digital evidence storage includes functions for automatic, indexed video and audio transcriptions, speedy and secure sharing even outside of the system and no-hassle disclosure. To learn how our system can streamline your office’s workload, contact us today.