T H E
D E T A I L
Monday, January 14, 2002
Good morning via the "Detail," a weekly e-mail newsletter that greets latent print examiners around the globe every Monday morning. The purpose of the Detail is to help keep you informed of the current state of affairs in the latent print community, to provide an avenue to circulate original fingerprint-related articles, and to announce important events as they happen in our field.
Last week, Christophe Champod gave us a look into his mind as he ponders the relationship between statistics and latent print examination. If you didn't get a chance to read his article, visit the Detail Archives.
This week, we look at the importance of standards and methodology as Alan McRoberts brings us a very appropriate article, re-printed from the October 2001 issue of Law Enforcement Technology, but seemingly torn from the headlines of today.
Fingerprints on the Ropes?
by Alan McRoberts
The most accepted form of physical evidence is under attack. In 1996, Professor James Starrs proclaimed that "fingerprint identifications are worse than on the ropes. They are down and verging on being counted out." The professor at the George Washington University National Law Center and senior editor for "Scientific Sleuthing Review" wrote this in "Forensic Science on the Ropes: Procellous Times in the Citadels of Infallibility, An Upper Cut to Fingerprinting," "Scientific Sleuthing Review," Volume 20, No. 4. His supposedly unbiased critical review was the predecessor of many public attacks on fingerprints. These attacks have raised concerns among the rank and file, as well as in top levels of law enforcement. Magazines ("Lingua Franca," "New Scientist," "California Lawyer"), newspapers ("New York Times," "Los Angeles Times" and many others), national television (ABC news) and online media (ABCnews.com) have had stories with titles such as "The Myth of Fingerprints," "Identity Crisis," "Smudged Prints, Experts Question the Authority of Fingerprint Analysis" and "Fingerprinting’s Reliability Draws Growing Court Challenges" to question the applications of this century old science.
A few academic types have attempted to use changes in the Federal Rules of Evidence to raise issues about the reliability of fingerprints as evidence. In the last two years, more than a dozen motions to suppress fingerprint evidence were filed. In each instance, the court either denied the motion or heard the motion and dismissed it upon the completion of a hearing. A significant written opinion was published last year. In United States vs. Wade M. Havvard, Southern District of Indiana, the Honorable David F. Hamilton, in a written opinion, stated, the "explanation makes sense, and the court credits it....The court is satisfied that latent print identification easily satisfies the standards of reliability in Daubert and Kumho Tire. In fact, after going through this analysis, the court believes that latent print identification is the very archetype of reliable expert testimony under those standards." On July 18 the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, upheld the opinion. While the courts have repeatedly allowed and upheld the use of fingerprints, the critics have succeeded in bringing challenging new lines of questioning and cross examination to the latent print examiner and have raised the bar for the acceptability of fingerprint evidence. Some of the issues have related to methodology and standards.
During the last quarter century, specific trends have matured in forensic science. Examiner certification, laboratory accreditation and consensus standards have emerged as necessities for progressive law enforcement laboratories. The development of consensus standards, which supported the use of DNA evidence in the courts was successful. These standards were developed by the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM), sponsored by the FBI. (The general public became aware of SWGDAM during the public viewing of testimony discussing blood evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial).
With SWGDAM’s success, the FBI recognized the benefit of scientific working groups and the need to develop "consensus standards" for various forensic disciplines. In 1995, the FBI hosted a group of latent print examiners at the FBI academy to discuss developing consensus standards which would preserve and improve the quality of service provided by the latent print community. The resulting working group evolved and is now known as the Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology (SWGFAST). It patterned itself after SWGDAM and proceeded to prepare guidelines to provide guidance for the use of fingerprints.
At the International Association for Identification’s (IAI) 85th annual conference held recently in Miami, Florida, a member of the audience commented that she had been asked in court about SWGFAST and if she was familiar with the guidelines. Preserving and improving the quality of public service should be a concern for all professionals. It is in the best interest of the science that latent print examiners are acquainted with and embrace the goals and objectives of SWGFAST.
SWGFAST members are actively involved in the field of friction ridge examination. They represent the fingerprint community at large with a balance of members from the private sector and twenty-five North American law enforcement agencies. The members bring diverse perspectives from local, state, and federal agencies, but the common goal to preserve and improve the quality of service brings this group of dedicated professionals together as a team. In the initial meetings, the following objectives were established:
While the FBI receives credit for sponsoring SWGFAST, and a number of other similar scientific working groups, it would be a mistake to say that the group functions as an FBI committee for the benefit of the FBI. The FBI profits the same as any other law enforcement agency that embraces the guidelines produced by SWGFAST. Their policies and procedures are consistent with consensus standards and industry norms. The guidelines provide common goals for training and quality assurance issues. Professional standards, such as latent print identifications requiring a verification by a qualified second examiner, are issues which the courts rely on when faced with defense motions challenging the validity of the science. While SWGFAST has a limit of 40 members, it solicits input from any interested party. All guidelines are produced as "drafts for comments." These drafts are then published in the official publication of the International Association for Identification (the world’s largest organization representing the identification community). The drafts for comment and finalized drafts are also available on the Internet at www.swgfast.org and other web sites. They are freely distributed to local fingerprint organizations and interested parties. Discussions and presentations are encouraged in professional meetings such as the I.A.I.’s 85th annual seminar. Constructive feedback is solicited and appreciated.
Currently, SWGFAST has seven completed documents available as guidelines for any law enforcement agency or private entity to use. These documents provide basic concepts and guidelines for agencies to apply to their individual situations. Many of the concepts reflect the current trends in forensic science, i.e., proficiency testing, proper note taking, etc. These documents are not meant to supplant existing agency procedures, but to provide support and guidance for agencies needing to establish or revise their operations. The documents are:
Current projects include completing a glossary, developing friction ridge identification standards, and establishing a liaison with a new European Fingerprint Working Group.
The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors – Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) has established many beneficial standards for the 200 plus accredited laboratories. SWGFAST is attempting to provide specific guidance related to fingerprints for both the accredited laboratories and the latent print sections within the thousands of law enforcement agencies that will never have an accredited crime laboratory.
Deputy Alan McRoberts is a thirty year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (California) and currently serves as chairperson for the Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology. Additional information is available at www.swgfast.org.
Next week we will probably have an update on the Plaza case. As Ed German says, hopefully the ruling will be appealed and overturned soon. However, this trial isn't expected to be over for several months. For goodness sake, they started jury selection in July, and still haven't started trial!! But, as Pat says, DON'T PANIC... and more, on the discussion board.
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Until next Monday morning, don't work too hard or too little.