Chain of Custody Proves to be MLB’s Weak Link
As a PCI Forensic Investigator (PFI), 403 Labs deals with chain of custody and evidence handling requirements on a regular basis. As a Wisconsin-based company, located just outside of Milwaukee, 403 Labs also happens to be host to a number of Milwaukee Brewers fans. It probably goes without saying then that the recent news involving Brewers superstar and National League MVP, Ryan Braun, has inspired some interesting discussions around the hypothetical water cooler.
For anyone not up to speed on the soap opera that has been playing out over the last four months, you can take a spin through this ESPN piece. The quick-and-dirty of it all is that yesterday Braun became the first major league baseball player to have a drug-related suspension overturned. Initial reports are that the decision may have been greatly influenced by the chain of custody and handling of the evidence. From Tom Haudricourt’s piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
[Independent arbitrator Shyam] Das ruled in Braun’s favor because of a chain-of-custody dispute that occurred after his urine sample was taken during an early October drug test. People familiar with the details said the sample was not dropped off that day at FedEx to be sent to the MLB testing lab in Montreal because the collector thought it was too late and the shipping company was closed.
Instead, the collector kept the sample, and perhaps others, refrigerated at home for two days before making the shipment. Though the seals on the samples were unbroken upon arriving at the lab, that lapse in protocol became the crux of the hearing in which Braun’s side contested the validity of the test itself.
The MLB drug policy states that “absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the laboratory on the same day they are collected.”
The policy goes on to say, “If the specimen is not immediately prepared for shipment, the collector shall ensure that it is appropriately safeguarded during temporary storage. The collector must keep the chain of custody intact. The collector must store the samples in a cool and secure location.”
MLB officials argued that despite the delay in shipping, the collector did keep the chain of custody intact and store the samples in the proper environment. Das thought there was room for error in the process, however, and ruled accordingly.
While Braun has maintained his innocence throughout, it appears as though this “technicality,” as some are calling it, may have provided enough reasonable doubt to convince the independent arbitrator and the player’s representative to rule in his favor.
While MLB officials considered Braun’s exoneration to be based strictly on a technicality, the player’s side did not see it that way. Because of the delay in shipping, they considered the chain of custody broken and therefore the test itself to be invalid. They argued that Braun’s sample could have been tainted by the time lapse and also questioned if the positive test actually was his sample.
The ESPN story suggests that Major League Baseball and the anti-doping agencies are adamant that everything was handled appropriately.
Sources told [reporters] the seals were totally intact and testing never reflected any degradation of the sample. Based on the World Anti-Doping Agency code, this is exactly what would have been expected to happen, and the collector took the proper action, the source said.
Legally speaking though, what some may deem “proper action” does not necessarily equate to following chain of custody requirements. Keep in mind that Major League Baseball was the co-author of the policy detailing the multi-step procedure for collecting samples. Major League Baseball also employed the evidence collector. While Major League Baseball “vehemently disagrees with the decision,” they may have nobody to blame but themselves.
ESPN Legal Analyst Lester Munson provided some other interesting insights as to why Braun was exonerated on Mike and Mike in the Morning.
In the age of “ready-shoot-aim” journalism, it is safe to assume that details will continue emerging and changing shape in the coming days. The only thing clear at the moment is that Ryan Braun will not be suspended for 50 games this season. There are still plenty of questions that remain though. Will baseball review their policies and procedures? Will Braun offer up more evidence to try and clear his name? Will fans welcome him back with open arms? Only time will tell.
If nothing else, the drama playing out clearly illustrates the importance of maintaining the integrity of the chain of custody when handling evidence. If the whereabouts of evidence are called into question, it could present enough “reasonable doubt” to sway a jury, or, an independent arbitrator… and there is no way of knowing when chain of custody will NEED to come into play.
On perhaps a somewhat tangential matter, did Major League Baseball or one of its representatives violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule by leaking Braun’s test results? Or is the MLB somehow above the law? Given that a very recent story on the MLB.com cited the HIPAA Privacy Rule, it seems more likely that Braun’s rights may have been infringed upon.
So Major League Baseball is upset at the outcome of their process, and is apparently considering filing a federal lawsuit. Ryan Braun is upset that his rights were violated, and has hinted he may also consider a lawsuit. Let’s just hope that if anything goes to court, chain of custody is given its due process.