Community Supervision Officers and the Digital Forensics Process
First, an examination and some background on how parole boards and violations work is necessary. In cases where the supervising officer feels that there has been a violation or is about to be a violation by the offender, the supervising officer submits a formal violation report to the Indiana Parole Board or sentencing judge and requests formal action. The actions requested can range from imposing intermediate sanctions, such as GPS monitoring or increased reporting instructions to incarceration. If the supervising officer becomes aware that the offender poses an immediate risk to the community or has violated the supervised release agreement by committing a new offense, the supervising officer can call the parole board or sentencing judge directly and request an emergency warrant. This process could take between 10 minutes to one hour and the supervising officer is told over the phone if the circumstances justify an emergency warrant. It is important to note that parole agents and law enforcement officers have the authority to make warrantless arrests if a new crime is uncovered. If the parole board or sentencing judge agrees to issue the warrant, the supervising officer takes the offender in to custody and the signed warrant is faxed to the local jail and the offender is transported to the facility by the supervising officer or local law enforcement. There is no waiting for the warrant and no chance the offender absconds as the offender is never out of the supervising officer’s sight. The Indiana Parole Board has full authority to issue warrants for parolees and the parole agents and community corrections officers have full arrest powers over offenders in their care (IC 11-13-3-3, 1979). Probation officers have full arrest powers over probationers (IC 11-13-1-1, 1979), however, judges overseeing the cases rarely allow the probation officers in their jurisdiction the authority to make arrests and local law enforcement are called in for the actual arrest.
For the remainder of this paper the author will be relying on eight plus years of training and experience as a probation and parole agent, two of which was with the Indiana Department of Corrections, Parole Services Division. There are no written standards or procedures in place within the Indiana Department of Corrections or Indiana State Judiciary, in regards to probation officers, relating to the inspection or seizure of computers for digital forensics examinations. Indiana Parole Services does not utilize any form of evidence bags or labels and the agents are not trained in collection of evidence techniques and standards. If an agent seizes any property from a defendant, the defendant is asked to sign a form that states what the property being seized is, the date and time and the officer’s signature. The form that is given to the offender has nothing to do with the integrity of the potential evidence taken or the chain of custody of said evidence, it is simply a form provided to the offender in case the property is lost or damaged by the agent.
Confiscated or seized property is taken to the parole agent’s office and is locked in a file cabinet until it is to be returned to the offender. This process has a large flaw. In many cases the parole agent lives and works several hours from his/her district office and may only travel to the district office once a week. Parole districts are large and may encompass ten or more counties. In the case of Indiana Parole District 4B, the district office is located in Terre Haute, IN which is located in the southern most county in the district. Three parole agents, including myself, lived and worked in the six northern most counties in that district. This placed the agents a three hour drive from the district office. It is not reasonable nor efficient to have those agents drive to the office every time there is a confiscation issue. This means that the agent is forced to either take the property home with him/her or lock it in the trunk of the vehicle until the next trip to the district office. Either one of these choices could result in potential damage to the property or exclusion from a court of law, as a judge would not allow evidence into a court proceeding that was kept at the agent’s home for a week.
If the agent needs to have digital forensics performed on the confiscated electronic equipment, the property must be taken to a local police department that has personnel trained in digital forensics. There are many issues with this procedure. First, the agent has taken no steps to preserve any evidence that may be found on the confiscated equipment that could potentially lead to new charges being filed. Second, as stated above, the agent is not provided with the proper training and equipment to maintain a legal chain of custody when the property is given to local law enforcement for forensics testing. This may cause the police agency to deny the agent of their services as they do not want to be liable for any damage to the offender’s property. Lastly, if evidence of a new crime is uncovered by the forensic examiner, they may not be able to use the evidence in a court of law as proper chain of custody was not observed, or the evidence was stored in the agent’s home for several days before being turned over for examination. Chain of custody involves the proper recording of evidence and records of who is control of the evidence at all times.
With all the issues discussed in the above paragraphs concerning the proper handling and storage of confiscated property and potential evidence, there is one more issue that arises from the method currently utilized by parole agents in Indiana. That is the issue of time. When a parole agent has deemed it necessary to confiscate an offenders electronic devices and turn the property over to qualified forensic specialists for examination, time is extremely important. Once the confiscated property is in he possession of the forensics specialist, the examination process could take weeks or even months to complete. Chances are that the officer or specialist has other cases that need to be completed involving their department and the local prosecutor’s office. These cases will always come first for the examiner. The examiners are not compensated in any way for the analysis that is performed on devices turned over by parole agents and while department heads may not mind their employees helping out another agency with the forensics process, they usually expect the department’s cases to take priority.
In many cases this leads to a long delay in getting the results to the parole agents. The problem with the aforementioned process and time issue, is that while the process is being played out between the parole agent and the forensic examiner, the
parolee remains in the community. The parole agent has no grounds for a violation or arrest warrant until it is proven that there has been a disregard by the offender concerning his/her stipulations. If the parolee is engaging in illegal activity or using a digital device in a manner that violates the stipulations of supervision, the parolee may decide to abscond, meaning he/she may leave the state or area and the agent may not be able to locate the offender. The offender cannot be supervised if the agent is unable to meet with the offender. Another issue that arises from the time stand point, is that the offender may be in the cycle of offense. In the case of a sexual predator, if the offender has been looking at child pornography, this behavior could lead the offender to re-offend with another victim, as the behavior may trigger a desire to act on urges that they have been trying to avoid through supervision and treatment. The fear of being caught may lead the offender to re-offend as they will likely be going back to prison if any violations are found by the examiner. The above scenarios place the greater public at risk for further victimization by violent predators.
As mentioned in a previous section, the Indiana Parole Board has complete authority over offenders released to parole supervision. If the offender has violated the stipulations of supervision, the parole board can issue a warrant, conduct a violation hearing, and return the offender to prison or continue them on parole supervision. A basic digital forensics training program for parole agents would allow the agents to conduct a preliminary examination of the offender’s digital devices and take the appropriate actions based on those findings. This could greatly reduce the wait time between contact with the offender, confiscation of property, examination of the devices, returned results to the parole agent, and warrant request/apprehension. This process currently employed by parole services could take days, weeks, or even months. This delay could place the community at greater risk of being victimized and does not hold the offender accountable for prohibited behavior and violations in a timely manner. None of which is a good supervision strategy and a change needs to be made.