The Friction Ridge
Written by Robert J. Garrett   

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Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS)
and the Identification Process

A WHILE BACK, I was contacted by an immigration lawyer who represented an individual facing deportation. According to the attorney, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had found—based on an automated fingerprint search—that his client had been deported once before under a different name. The attorney sought my assistance in examining the fingerprints to make sure that they were those of his client.

I asked the attorney for the name of the fingerprint examiner who had made the identification so I could make contact and arrange to see the prints. I was surprised to learn that no fingerprint examiner had ever confirmed the results from the automated search—and the immigration court was prepared to proceed with deportation based solely on the results of the automated search.

I prepared an affidavit for the attorney explaining how automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) work and the protocol that followed a search hit: that is, a qualified fingerprint examiner compares the prints selected by the computer to make sure it is, in fact, an identification. The attorney filed his motion to stay the deportation proceedings until a qualified fingerprint examiner could compare the fingerprints. The immigration court, however, rejected the motion and insisted that the automated results were sufficient to continue with the process.

In another example, I was recently consulted on two similar fingerprint cases. In each case, a local police department had submitted to their state AFIS fingerprints recovered from crime scenes. The state AFIS unit reported back to the local police that the submitted prints had hit on a suspect. The report listed the SBI number of the suspect and the number of the finger that was matched to the crime-scene prints. These reports were used as evidence of the suspect’s complicity in the crimes under investigation and resulted in grand-jury indictments in both cases.

Once again, I asked the attorneys for copies of the fingerprint examiners’ reports so I would know what to ask for when arranging for my examination. I was advised that there were no fingerprint examination reports and that the indictments were made without a qualified fingerprint examiner ever reviewing the automated search results or testifying before the grand jury regarding their findings.

These cases are now proceeding to trial, and still no fingerprint examiner from the prosecution has ever issued a report regarding the identifications.

In my experience, it is becoming more and more common in AFIS-hit cases to find only a screen print of the AFIS “match”—with no other report from a qualified fingerprint examiner confirming the identification. There is usually no indication of whether the reported AFIS hit was from candidate #1 or candidate #20. What is astonishing is that in recent cases I encountered, the state AFIS units stamped their reports with the following statement:

This package contains potential suspect identification. It is incumbent upon the submitting agency to provide positive ID for prosecutorial purposes.

However, this caveat seems to be frequently ignored by some of the submitting agencies.

In the criminal-justice system, most cases never go to trial. They are often settled through negotiation between the defense attorney and the prosecutor, or through a guilty plea from the defendant. It would be interesting to know how many cases were settled or plead on the strength of an AFIS hit, without further corroborating testimony from a qualified fingerprint examiner.

Between 2008 and 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) sponsored the Expert Working Group on Human Factors in Latent Print Analysis. The group developed a flow chart of the latent-print examination process based on the ACE-V method (analysis, comparison, evaluation, and verification) used by fingerprint examiners. This same chart has been adopted by the Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology (SWGFAST) as part of their proposed “Standards for Examining Friction Ridge Impressions and Resulting Conclusions”. The flow chart clearly shows the path to follow once an AFIS hit has been made. AFIS is shown as part of the analysis phase of the examination method and is not part of the comparison, evaluation, or verification phases. AFIS hits require a full examination by a qualified fingerprint examiner.

The SWGFAST Press Kit includes the following entry:

14 Does an AFIS make latent print identifications?
14.1 No. The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) is a computer based search system but does not make a latent print individualization decision.
14.1.1 AFIS provides a ranked order of candidates based upon search parameters.
14.1.2 A latent print examiner makes the decision of individualization or exclusion from the candidate list.
14.1.3 The practice of relying on current AFIS technology to individualize latent prints correctly is not sound.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts and, more recently, Bullcoming v. New Mexico, reiterated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Reports of a laboratory or investigative finding do not satisfy the requirement.

Our society and its government have embraced technology in various forms for its efficiency and economy. In the areas of law enforcement and public safety, these technological advances have included AFIS, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), airport security screening devices, and red light/traffic cameras. But these advances bring with them compromises of privacy and our right “…to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects…”

AFIS hits must be examined by a qualified fingerprint examiner and the results of that examination verified before any proceedings are commenced against a potential suspect. It is unethical, unprofessional, and—most likely—unconstitutional to do otherwise.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, including ten years supervising a crime-scene unit. He is a past president of the International Association for Identification (IAI) and currently chairs the board that oversees the IAI’s certification programs. Now working as a private consultant on forensic-science and crime-scene related issues, he is certified as a latent-print examiner and senior crime-scene analyst. He is a member of the Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology (SWGFAST) and a director of the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board.

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