The Charles County Sheriff’s Office took the wraps off its new Digital Forensics Unit last week, revealing that since its launch last August, the two-person unit has examined nearly 500 electronic devices that have been collected during more than 250 criminal investigations.

During a press conference on Friday, Charles County Sheriff Troy D. Berry (D) said that the unit was established as a result of a notorious child sexual abuse case that made national headlines.

“In the fall of 2016 when our special victims unit was notified that a high school student had received inappropriate text messages possibly from a school employee, our detectives thoroughly investigated the incident and identified Carlos Bell as the employee,” Berry said. “After executing numerous search warrants and recovering multiple digital devices, detectives outsourced the analysis of the devices to the Maryland State Crime Lab. Due to staffing levels and numerous requests from other agencies from all across the state of Maryland, the examination took at least six months” during which time Bell remained free.

“To the shock and dismay of this agency and community, we later learned this sexual predator had sexually assaulted 42 children,” Berry said. “My immediate thoughts as sheriff was we had to do something, and something had to change. This delay in analysis could never, ever happen again.”

Using funds from CCSO’s budget, Berry established the DFU in a dedicated space on the second floor of the agency’s Waldorf station. Between August 2018, when the unit opened, and last month, the unit’s two full-time digital analysts have examined an average of 47 confiscated electronic devices a month, assisting 255 criminal cases.

“It still takes time to go through these devices, but we no longer have to wait for an outside source and we can initiate these searches immediately,” Berry said. “In a very short time, this very new unit has become a success and a critical asset for the Charles County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigative Division.”

CID chief Commander Joseph Pratta explained that the lab follows the best practices of the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists, which certifies forensic analysts.

The DFU’s analysts are Martin Hoffmaster, formerly of the Alexandria, Va., police department, and Justin Brackett, formerly of the Prince George’s County Police Department.

“Both technicians excel in the location and recovery of digital evidence,” Pratta said.

Pratta said that nearly 10% of the cases the DFU has participated in so far are related to child abuse.

In addition to gaining access to files, messages and photos on digital devices belonging to criminal suspects, the DFU can also enhance videos from cell phones and security cameras that may show evidence of criminal activity, Pratta said.

Pratta said that although new digital technologies are emerging all the time, so far the law has been able to keep up with it.

“We have to get a judicial review [before seizing a digital device] in most cases,” Pratta said. “The judges and the courts [are] keeping themselves up to date on what the technology is so that they can allow or nor allow what law enforcement is allowed to do with those devices.”

Berry emphasized that the DFU’s capabilities do not enable CCSO to access people’s phones, tablets and computers without a search warrant.

While the DFU is adequately staffed and funded for its current workload, CCSO is keeping its eye on future needs.

“At this point we’re able to handle the workload, but as we see technology expand ... we definitely have to be mindful that we have to be spending additional dollars to be able to [not only] address that new technology, but also have the same time have staff members to address the number of electronic items that we collect from our criminal investigators,” Berry told the Maryland Independent.

One such new capability that the DFU is looking to incorporate in the near future is the ability to digitally analyze bullet rounds and casings by plugging into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, Berry said.

“If we have a firearm related incident in the county, we’ll be able to analyze those casings and rounds here in the county,” Berry said. “We’re working with [ATF] and we’re bringing that technology on board.”

In addition to helping solve crimes in Charles County, CCSO has made the DFU available to law enforcement agencies in neighboring counties so that time-sensitive investigations aren’t stalled by the need to wait on the availability of crucial digital evidence.

“Digital evidence from phones and computers touches all types of crimes, from homicide to financial fraud,” Pratta said. “This unit is critical because it helps us move faster on investigations into child sexual abuse cases and other crimes.”

“The safety of our community is paramount, and this digital forensics lab will greatly contribute to that goal,” Pratta said.

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @​PaulIndyNews