Chattanooga: Charges dropped over lost evidence

Chattanooga: Charges dropped over lost evidence

August 9th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

Kenardo Curry

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

A former city employee charged along with at least two others of stealing more than $25,000, had her 12 theft charges dismissed after the Chattanooga Police Department inadvertently destroyed evidence in the case, according to court documents.

Jennifer Center, 37, who worked for the city's Neighborhood Services and Community Development Department, was accused of stealing more than $3,000 from CSL and Associates, Ferger Place Neighborhood Association and Avondale Youth Association in 2003, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.

Kenardo Curry, a former Neighborhood Services administrator, still has 19 charges pending against him, including theft of property and official misconduct. It's unclear if the destroyed evidence will affect his case. His next court date is Sept. 9 before Judge Rebecca Stern.

Among the items confiscated during a search at Center's home were invoices from Remainstobeseen Inc., a local advertising company that specializes in promotional items, as well as Department of Revenue documents, Sports Barn documents, a Dell computer tower, photos of two marijuana plants and a printer, according to the order dismissing the charges issued Aug. 3.

On March 1, the items seized by authorities were destroyed, according to the order. The order does not disclose how the items were mistakenly destroyed.

Chattanooga Police Officer Nathan Hartwig, a public information officer, said administrators are looking into why the evidence was destroyed. He declined to comment further, saying more details would be released as they become available.

Evidence for the Chattanooga Police Department is stored in an annex building.

In 2008, the city conducted an internal audit of the evidence room examining records from 2006 to 2008, finding the staff of seven people was very organized in how the items were maintained. However, the audit also noted there was very limited space, making it easier for evidence to be misplaced or lost over time. The department should use a software system using barcodes to keep track of evidence, according to the report.

"While CPD's destruction of these items was not conducted in bad faith, the destruction of this evidence amounts to gross negligence," Stern writes.

Center argued the evidence was needed to refresh her memory, establish her allocations of commissions among clients and impeach state witnesses, according to the order. Her attorney, Marvin Berke, could not be reached for comment.

"These circumstances call into question whether the defendant can be provided with a fair trial and warrant the dismissal of these charges," Stern writes.

Center was fired from her position because of her work performance, said Richard Beeland, media relations director for the city. He said this was one of the first cases the city auditor tackled.

"One thing that it really did was show how important it was to have a city auditor in place and bring them to the mayor's attention," he said.

The city was able to recover some of the stolen money from the incident, but "not very much of it," Beeland said.

Investigators in the case alleged money was spent on diamond earrings, exercise equipment, painting, heating and air conditioning work and furniture for an area church, according to archives.

Tiffany Bercher, a former city employee, received a two-year sentence in November 2008 for a single theft charge in connection with the Neighborhood Services case, according to court records.

Contact Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406.

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