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Monday, October 9, 2006

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.
Breaking NEWz you can UzE...
compiled by Jon Stimac

Scotland's Lord Advocate Resigns BBC NEWS, UK - Oct 4, 2006 ...he has been caught up in the controversy surrounding the McKie fingerprint case....

Schools Sue Over Fingerprint Law WWMT-TV, MI - Oct 3, 2006 districts across the state have been working to get all employees fingerprinted...

Man Arrested After Sending Finger as Threat   SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, AUSTRALIA - Oct 2, 2006 ...a group leader in Japan was arrested for allegedly sending his finger with a threatening letter...

CSI Baghdad: Hunting for Truth in the Combat Zone   REUTERS, UK - Oct 1, 2006 ...only about 5 percent of crime scenes are ever looked at by CSI teams...

Recent CLPEX Posting Activity
Last Week's Board topics containing new posts
Moderated by Steve Everist
Red Fri Oct 06, 2006 4:57 pm

Fact Finding on the Psychology of Fingerprint Comparison
Boyd Baumgartner Thu Oct 05, 2006 12:39 pm

Anyone have good luck with "light tac" tape?
tsaur Mon Oct 02, 2006 1:47 pm



San Diego Police Department is currently accepting applications for a limited time for the full-time position of  Latent Print Examiner II.  The monthly salary range is $4795 to $5795 with a 5% additional salary increase for an IAI CLPE.  Qualified candidates will possess one year of full-time experience (or part-time equivalent) and will be a court-qualified fingerprint witness.  Details are available at


Last week

we looked at Part II of a two-part speech by Steve Scarborough on "Leaps of Logic" and "False Dilemmas".

This week

we take a look at some feedback on Steve Scarborough's article, "Infallible".

RE: Infallible
"Clueless Fingerprints"
by David Faigman
Science & Law Blog, September 25, 2006

The Weekly Detail, a newletter for the latent fingerprint community, reported a talk by Steve Scarborough in today's edition. The talk, the first of two parts, was given to a large group of latent examiners. You can subscribe to The Weekly Detail here. Since it appears to be taken from an oral presentation, the talk rambles somewhat and is hard to appreciate from a distance. Nonetheless, it is instructive, since it represents some of the thinking (or lack thereof) that is going on in this community. His main argument appears to be in response to those who doubt the "uniqueness" of fingerprints. Along the way, he seeks to defend claims of "infallibility" in the process of fingerprint identification, though he argues that such claims do not mean that examiners don't make mistakes. The two issues of uniquenenss and error rates must be kept separate, though Scarborough does not always accomplish this well.

First of all, on the question of uniqueness. Most critics do not challenge the uniqueness of fingerprints. It is a red-herring; it is both scientifically uninteresting and legally irrelevant. The uniqueness of fingerprints says absolutely nothing, NOTHING, about the ability of examiners to reliably and validly make fingerprint identifications between partial latent fingerprints and the known prints of a suspect or defendant. In theory, every person's face is unique, but this fact, if it is so, does not tell us whether reliable and valid identifications can be made when comparing the nose and ear of an unknown person to the full face of a known person. Empirically, the hypothesis that fingerprints are unique is separate and largely unrelated to the hypothesis that fingerprint identifications can be made from partial latent prints.

Please, can we all just stop talking about whether fingerprints are unique. Nothing follows from the fact, if it is so, that they are unique. I, for one, willingly (nay, enthusiastically), concede for the sake of all further argument that fingerprints are unique. Now, let's move on.

The second issue presented, and the one of great legal significance, is the error rate of latent print examination. Claims of "infallibility" pertain to whether fingerprint examiners are 100% accurate. To his credit, Scarborough admits that fingerprint examiners make mistakes, despite apparent comments to the contrary:

In all the training classes and presentations and testimony, the FBI has never once said that there are no mistakes made by fingerprint experts. In fact the FBI, in warnings about effective verification, mentions mistakes that they are run across in submitted cases from local agencies. The FBI has always promoted verification, consultation and double checks to assure that no mistakes in fingerprint identifications are made.

The fact that mistakes are possible, then, requires some level of quality control, which might or might not be effective. It should also result in attempts to measure the rate of those errors. On the general issue, he states as follows:

The FBI instructors stress verification and other quality control measures. They promote and teach verification to prevent mistakes. If people didn’t make mistakes with regard to Fingerprints ... then we wouldn’t need verification. But we all know that human beings make mistakes, and it goes without saying that humans are not infallible. The assumption that when the FBI fingerprint expert says that they are 100% certain about the ID, that they are implying that they don’t make mistakes, is a grand leap of logic.

At the end of the above quote, the waters get muddied. Scarborough is saying that a claim of 100% certainty by a latent print examiner is not a claim that they are 100% accurate. Fair enough. But what, then, is the claim of 100% confidence based upon, if not some idea that the error rate associated with the technology he or she used is "vanishingly small." Indeed, I don't know of any bona fide scientist who would claim 100% confidence in a technique/process/machine that itself did not have 100% accuracy. But, in any case, how do examiners know that their error rates are so low that they can have 100% confidence in their conclusions? It cannot be made on the basis of the uniqueness-of-fingerprints hypothesis, since that hypothesis has nothing to do with the hypothesis of latent examiner validity (see above). It is not based on published research, since precious little exists. It cannot be based on experience -- other than casual anecdote -- since no systematic attempt has been made to catalogue errors.

So, I am very heartened to see that a prominent latent examiner has admitted the existence of measurable error rates associated with latent fingerprint procedures. It's about time that researchers began to actually measure those error rates.
--- DLF
(David Faigman)


RE: RE: Infallible
by Steve Scarborough

With regard to Mr. Faigman's comments on Uniqueness, I applaud his call to no longer challenge uniqueness. I think it serves his agenda well to separate this out and call it “uninteresting and legally irrelevant.” However, uniqueness actually goes to the core of comparative examinations. The reason that a comparative expert, be it a fingerprint examiner, firearms expert or forensic document examiner, can conduct examinations is the issue of uniqueness. Precisely because fingerprints are unique, is why fingerprint comparisons can be made. However, I do agree with Mr. Faigman when he states “fingerprints are unique.” “Now let’s move on.”
Error rates:
Faigman makes the same mistake that I am talking about in “Infallible, Part 1” and showing as a Leaps of Logic. For example: “Claims of infallibility pertain to whether fingerprint examiners are 100% accurate.”  I think that if Mr. Faigman read and understood the article, he would recognize that these two issues are separate and to combine them is a leap of logic that does not follow facts, statements, or empirical knowledge.  His comments seem to only serve the agenda of a lawyer looking to make a point.
Mr. Faigman asks the question, “…how do examiners know that their error rates are so low that they can have 100% confidence in their conclusions?”.  We know based upon the Billions of comparisons made over the last 100 years and the extremely low rate of error. Even considering the flawed number promoted by Cole that there has been 22 reported errors in 100 years; the extrapolation of that number compared with the billions of fingerprint comparisons and searches using AFIS computers still makes the error rate astronomically low.  In short, this confidence is based upon a large volume of empirical evidence.
I would suggest to Mr. Faigman that he study the extremely thorough and cogent work by Kasey, Wertheim, Glenn Langenburg, and Andre Moenssens in the JFI, Jan/Feb issue of 2006.  This article is the best examination of error rates for fingerprint comparisons to date. This article shows that humans are fallible, errors can and do happen, and that the examinations are only as valid as the examiner performing the examination.  The research for the article shows the importance of confidence level and it’s relationship to examination conclusions. The JFI article also highlights the extremely low error rate for highly experienced examiners that follow accepted methodology.
One point I made in “Infallible, Part 1” is that while it is all well and good to have abstract theoretical discussions by inexperienced and remotely detached laymen about these issues, it is a whole different world than that understood by the comparative discipline experts who are immersed in day to day practical examinations.
Perhaps Mr. Faigman should remain "safe" within the "confines of academia" instead of lashing out at those who valiantly brave the real world. (

Steve Scarborough

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