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Challenges to the Science of Fingerprints

Legal issues challenging fingerprints as evidence have long been present within the criminal justice system. Most of the previous challenges have centered on two main issues: How were prints obtained? Have the prints been properly maintained? The age-old issues have been discussed earlier in the book as legal and scientific issues. These issues have been effectively dealt with by demonstrating that the evidence was obtained in accordance with accepted standards that are common practice within the forensic science community and that the chain of evidence has been maintained. After more than three-quarters of a century of using fingerprints as a form of evidence, the issue of fingerprints and the methodology associated with fingerprint identification has been challenged in recent years, specifically the methodology through which an identification/individualization is made. The challenge to this process has become known as the Daubert challenges. Of all the Daubert challenges that have been filed (in excess of thirty), none to date has been successful. That is not to say that the field of fingerprint identification is perfect. Challenges only serve to demonstrate that the integrity of the science of fingerprints remains intact and the necessity for the fingerprint practitioner to be trained, proficient, and remain vigilant is critical.

To do a complete analysis of the issues and court cases surrounding the Daubert issues in this publication is impractical. However, a quick overview to expose the beginning practitioner to the legal issues associated with Daubert is certainly in order, and will provide the practitioner with a foundation and exposure to the some of the legal issues associated with the science of fingerprints.

From a historical perspective, the first case to challenge the issues of methodology and testimony allowable by an “expert” was Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). This initial case required the court to decide the admissibility of scientific expert testimony. What was established in Daubert was the standard of acceptability of testimony regarding Federal Rule of Evidence 702, specifically five issues:

  • 1. Whether the theory or technique can be and has been tested.
  • 2. Whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication.
  • 3. The known or potential rate of error of a particular scientific technique.
  • 4. The degree to which the technique or theory has been generally accepted in the scientific community.
  • 5. The existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation.

In a companion case, Kumho Tire Company, Ltd., et al. v. Patrick Carmichael, etc., et al. (March 23, 1999), the court held, “setting forth the trial judge’s general ‘gatekeeping’ obligation ... applies not only to testimony based on ‘scientific’ knowledge, but also to testimony based on ‘technical’ and ‘other specialized’ knowledge.” Hence, the court upheld its posture of allowing expert testimony by other than scientific experts as mandated in Rule 702.

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