Sunday, January 9, 2011

Maybe and the Identification of Fingerprints

                        In 1979 the International Association for identification (IAI), the primary professional organization among forensic fingerprint specialists, established Resolution 1979 -7. This established that any member or examiner certified under the IAI latent print examiner program, who reported or testified that an identification was "possible, probable or likely" would have committed, as a member, an act unbecoming; if certified, to have action initiated towards certification revocation. In 1980 resolution 1980-5 amended the prior resolution, to further clarify in proper actions in court.
            From its earliest days as a forensic identification medium, fingerprints have been recognized as unique. Only now, with access to computerized automated fingerprint recognition systems, can truly in-depth research we performed. However, the experience of researchers and practitioners, augmented by statistical modeling, has served to form strong underpinnings for this theory.
            The past 20 years have seen challenges to the standing of fingerprints within human identification. Several critics of fingerprints, themselves neither experienced examiners or scientists, have attempted to belittle fingerprint technology rhetorically. If anything, their efforts have strengthened the primacy of dactyl identification by spurring greater research into fingerprints from biological, mathematical, and file compare to efforts.
            A second threat has been due to the human factor. First, there have been several episodes of malevolent, fraudulent fingerprint identifications by examiners lacking ethical and moral strength. Second, there have been a number of incorrect identifications reported by examiners. In the worst American case, three FBI examiners agreed, incorrectly, to the identification of a latent fingerprint from an international terrorist case -- when the originating nation’s police had already correctly effected an identification of a known terrorist. To its credit, the fingerprint community responded by upgrading policies and procedures, to the extent of some agencies requiring blind review of all latent figure print work by a separate examiner. Further, it has keyed psychological research to better understand how an examiner establishes a conclusion, as well as to understand how independent examiners can come to the same, incorrect, conclusion.
            Since the early days of latent fingerprint identification, it has been a tenet of the field that conclusions are firmly, positively established. Many misconstrue this as the examiner's being set up as demi-gods -- infallible. What it has really meant is that an examiner would not report a conclusion except:
·       the latent was produced by this individual
·       the latent was not produced by this individual
·       the latent use of insufficient quality to render an opinion on sourcing.
Resolutions 1979 -7 and 1980 -5 were enacted to provide the IAI a degree of authority to sanction those who violated these principles.
            In July, 2010, the IAI adopted Resolution 2010 -18. This resolution rescinded the prior resolutions, and effectively scrapped the authority of the IAI to sanction a member or certified examiner who should report a latent as being potentially produced by an individual. Specifically, section 7 speaks of using mathematical models to support possible identifications, and section 8 requires the examiner provide additional factors than merely mathematical modeling to support the qualified conclusion.
What this foretells is tremendous confusion in the justice arena. Investigators, long accustomed to knowing a positive conclusion to be considered a firm fact, will now have to determine how much weight to give it in making case decisions. More likely, many investigators will continue as in the past, and act upon a qualified identification as if it were firmly based. Prosecutors will face similar challenges. Defense, which previously could examine the quality of the examiner’s work product, or possibly challenge what an identification meant (“yes it is the defendants, but he has legitimate access”), now will face having to mount significant technical evaluation of the latent comparison, and possibly end up with a battle of the examiners when the qualified examination of one specialist cannot be verified by another.
            A significant fear will be that of the relatively inexperienced examiner determining a "maybe." Unless agencies act to establish in-house protocols limiting such determinations, or requiring verification of the qualified results, the determinations of and inexperienced examiner will be entered into the record as the equal to those of highly experienced examiners.
            Especially for defense counsel, the use of an experienced, senior, fingerprint specialist will become mandatory. To help maintain quality in the criminal justice system, not just for high profile, major felonies, but indeed for any case where fingerprint evidence has meaning. The costs to the justice system will expand significantly.
            The implications of this policy change by the IAI will be significant, to say the least. As a firm believer in fingerprint identification as a valuable form of evidence, I fear the unintended consequences it may unleash.

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