The Dangers of Fingerprint Evidence

Is fingerprint evidence reliable?

Crime scene investigators have long relied on fingerprint evidence to uncover who committed a crime.  Fingerprint evidence is widely regarded as powerful evidence because all of us carry around a unique pattern of swirls and ridges on each of our fingers.  Despite the widespread use of fingerprint evidence in courtrooms across the nation, many judges and researchers across the nation have questioned whether fingerprint experts use scientifically sound techniques to determine a suspect’s identity.  Our New Jersey criminal defense lawyers at Sitzler & Sitzler discuss the potential dangers of fingerprint evidence and what you should do if you are accused of a crime based on fingerprint evidence.

The Daubert Standard

The Daubert standard is a rule of evidence regarding the admissibility of expert’s testimony in court proceedings.  Under the standard, a trial judge must ensure an expert’s testimony is reliable.  Reliability turns on several factors, including whether the theory or technique used by the expert is generally accepted in the scientific community, whether it can be tested, and whether it has been subjected to peer review.  

Although fingerprint evidence has been used for decades, several judges have called its reliability into question. In 2002, Judge Pollack, a federal judge in Philadelphia, ruled that fingerprint evidence does not meet standards for scientific scrutiny.  He later reversed this stance and allowed the fingerprint expert to testify. Nonetheless, his challenge to fingerprint evidence, along with that of over 40 other judges, raises some important issues that we should all consider.

Lack of Objective Standards

The issue with fingerprint evidence lies not in the fact that each of us has a unique fingerprint, but rather with how fingerprint experts compare prints to find a match.  There are not objective standards for evaluating whether two prints are deemed a match.  Without an accepted uniform approach, fingerprint experts use differing methods to make a match.  Some experts will use point counting, which involves counting the number of similar ridges, while others take a more holistic approach.  

A lack of standards in the field of fingerprint evidence could lead to some experts falsely declaring a match, while another expert would not have reached the same conclusion.  This makes it imperative for anyone charged with a crime that involves fingerprint evidence to obtain the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney who will challenge the evidence introduced against you and employ an independent expert as needed.