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Fingerprint Identification: A Valid, Reliable "Forensic Science"?

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Volume: 18 Issue: 2 Dated: Summer 2003 Pages: 30-37
Andre A. Moenssens
Date Published
8 pages
This article examines various court decisions regarding the use of fingerprint analysis as a valid and reliable forensic science in a court of law.
The article outlines the history of challenges to the use of fingerprint evidence in court by examining court decisions, especially the case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, which set standards for the use of scientific or other expert evidence in court. The uniqueness and permanence of fingerprints, or more technically -- friction ridge details -- is without question. The process of prenatal development causes an infinite variation of lines on the surface of the hands and the soles of the feet. Moreover, courts worldwide accept as evidence the uniqueness of friction ridge details. The problem for the court, which was laid out in Daubert, becomes deciding whether the process of examining latent prints is scientific and reliable. The article describes the three levels of impression details and then examines the use of the ACE-V method of examining friction ridge impressions, which is the standard methodology in use today. The question of whether subjectivity plays a part in the determination of a match of a latent fingerprint is discussed, as are the technical questions that remain about matching fingerprints at a crime scene to a particular individual. The courtroom challenges to the use of fingerprint identification forced the forensic science population to better articulate the process by which fingerprint individualization is achieved. The article also notes that the error rate and mistaken identifications made with fingerprint analysis is fairly small given the millions of fingerprint comparisons that are conducted worldwide on a daily basis. As such fingerprint analysis has reached a level of scientific sophistication that should render it acceptable in a court of law.