When Is It a Crime Scene?

By: Michael S. Glenn

For most individuals, diving is free from restrictions and requirements that can lead them into the legal arena. However, for some, the underwater environment presents exactly those constraints. Public safety divers, more often than not, are almost always involved in some form of crime scene investigation regardless of the subject matter of their dive. Often times, each of the three task-specific reasons for conducting emergency response diving are married to the legal system’s core concept of criminal investigations until evidence is found to negate any theory.

While most individuals do not think of drowning victims or vehicles in the water as crime scenes, they are, in fact. just that. Each of these subjects presents its own specific set of requirements and standards, and dive team members must recognize the need to process each of them with the utmost care and professionalism.

PSD Team “Jobs”

Public safety dive teams are generally founded to perform at least one of three main job assignments:

  • human remains recovery
  • vehicle and hazard recovery
  • evidentiary recoveries

In addition, some teams also perform rescue diving, which may also fall under a criminal investigation standard.

Why is every recovery considered a crime scene?

Tragically, approximately over 140,000 individuals drown each year around the globe. While an overwhelming number of these incidents are accidental in nature, every one of them should be treated as a potential crime scene and fall under the scope of a law enforcement investigation. Each incident where a body is found in the water, from accidental drowning, waterway accidents, or disposal of human remains from other sources, are all considered a cause of death investigations. In a situation where an individual has drowned, without proper crime scene processing and management how can you prove it was drowning and not a homicide? How can you be sure someone did not hold them underwater or potentially caused their injury through planned efforts? As such, each location and recovery becomes a crime scene to be worked on the land as well as underwater, employing the same legal principles and investigatory practices any law enforcement agency would use worldwide.

Vehicles in the water

Where vehicles are found in the water, these too are treated as crime scenes until they can be proven to not be illegally disposed of. While vehicles do find themselves left in local waters due to storms, flooding, or vehicle accidents, several are also found in the same waters due to theft, fraud, and other criminal activities. Until the exact nature of the vehicle’s history and means of disposal are fully investigated, no one can be sure of how the auto found itself to be under the surface. Each incident must be treated as a crime scene, with the utmost care and precision to attention being employed. In accordance with several states statutes and even the EPA, the disposal of a vehicle in the water, by any means other than natural causes, is at a minimum littering and therefore criminal in nature requiring the area to be considered a crime scene to locate possible offenders.

The final task-specific operation of public safety dive teams is evidentiary recovery. It goes without saying that these types of operations are, at their very heart, crime scenes to be processed with due regard.

Assume it’s a crime scene always.

When considering the potential areas and arenas where public safety dive teams may be called upon, it is fairly accurate to state that almost every dive they perform is in some manner directly related to a potential criminal offense and, as such, becomes a crime scene in which they operate. From accidental drowning to the dumping of human remains, accidental flooding of vehicles to fraudulent disposals to avoid making the monthly payments, there are few areas where emergency response divers would not find themselves needing to conduct a thorough crime scene investigation.

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