The Use of Fingerprints in an Ohio Criminal Case

One of the most important developments in the history of criminal investigations is fingerprinting. No two people possess identical fingerprints, making them an invaluable tool for identifying individuals. 

Law enforcement officers rely on fingerprint evidence to build solid cases against suspects, but the process of locating, cataloging, and analyzing these prints is more sophisticated than one might imagine.

Three Types of Fingerprints: Patent, Latent, and Plastic Prints

At a crime scene, law enforcement officers collect three main types of fingerprints – patent, latent, and plastic prints.

Patent Prints

Patent prints are visible fingerprints left on hard surfaces, often through contact with substances such as dust, blood, or paint. To examine and capture these prints, good lighting is crucial. Sometimes, forensic experts use specialized magnifying lenses or cameras to enhance the detail of these prints, making it easier to compare them against a fingerprint database.

Latent Prints

Unlike patent prints, latent fingerprints are not immediately visible to the naked eye. These prints are deposited when sweat, oil, or other substances on our fingers come into contact with a surface. To reveal latent prints, investigators use a variety of chemical and physical enhancement techniques. 

Plastic Prints

Plastic prints are three-dimensional fingerprints that leave impressions on pliable materials such as wax, heavy grease, clay, melted plastic, or putty. These prints are often discernable without much assistance. But to create higher-contrast images for analysis, investigators may use oblique lighting to emphasize the three-dimensional characteristics of the print.

How Fingerprints Are Used in Ohio Criminal Cases

One of the primary ways fingerprints are used in criminal cases is by linking suspects to specific locations and crimes. When a person touches an object or a surface, they may leave behind traces of their unique fingerprint pattern. These latent prints can be collected, analyzed, and compared to known fingerprints in various databases as well as those of potential suspects.

Here are several ways through which fingerprints link suspects to criminal cases:

1. Connects Suspects to Crime Scenes

By finding a suspect’s fingerprint at a crime scene, investigators are able to establish a connection between the individual and the location. This can be especially damning evidence if the suspect denies ever being at the scene or claims to have an alibi.

2. Connects Suspects to Weapons or Tools

Another way fingerprints can be crucial in securing a conviction is by linking suspects to weapons or tools used during the commission of a crime. If a murder or assault weapon is discovered bearing the fingerprints of a suspect, it becomes increasingly difficult for the accused to argue against their involvement in the crime.

3. Matches With Databases

Fingerprints collected at crime scenes are often compared against national and international databases, which store fingerprints of previous offenders. By finding a match, investigators can quickly narrow down their list of suspects, potentially identifying the perpetrator even if they have never encountered them before.

Unique Fingerprints: Compelling, but Not Conclusive

Fingerprints are indeed unique to every individual, making them an enticing piece of evidence for forensic specialists and investigators alike. They can be powerful evidence in court, as a fingerprint match can suggest a high likelihood that a specific person was present at a crime scene.

However, it’s essential to understand that so-called “matching” fingerprints do not always conclusively prove that two fingerprints are from the same individual. 

Fingerprint analysis is conducted using a combination of scientific techniques and expert interpretation. The unique patterns of ridges and valleys found on the prints are compared to a database of fingerprints or a suspect, looking for similarities and potential matches. 

However, the process can be challenged by factors such as smudging, partial prints, and the quality of the collected evidence. This is where the expertise of the fingerprint examiner comes into play.

Contrary to popular belief, fingerprint examiners do not simply look for a perfect match to identify a suspect. Instead, they analyze the ridge patterns, minutiae points, and other unique characteristics of the prints, then determine the likelihood of a match. This process can be time-consuming and subjective, with results often dependent on the skill and experience of the examiner.

Challenging Fingerprint Evidence

Given the various issues and limitations associated with fingerprint evidence, it’s not surprising that criminal defense attorneys often challenge its validity in court. This can involve questioning the matching process, the expertise of the forensic specialist, or the validity of a match based on partial prints.

Highlighting Varying Standards of Matching Fingerprints

Forensic experts do not have a universally agreed-upon standard for determining when two fingerprints are considered a match. The number of matching points that experts require to declare a definitive match can vary significantly. This variation creates the potential for subjectivity and inconsistency in the fingerprint analysis process.

Moreover, due to the inherent uncertainty of fingerprint matching, experts may use terms such as “consistent with” or “cannot be excluded” rather than declaring a perfect match. Such ambiguity may limit the strength of fingerprint evidence in court.

Pointing Out Processing and Accuracy Issues

When processing fingerprint evidence, numerous factors may impact the final result, thus decreasing its accuracy. For example, the quality of a latent print found at a crime scene might be poor due to smudging, contaminants, or general wear and tear. This could lead to an incomplete or distorted representation of the original fingerprint.

Additionally, experts must rely on sophisticated tools and software to compare and analyze prints. While these systems have significantly improved over time, they are not infallible and can potentially lead to false matches or overlooked similarities.

Age of Fingerprints

While fingerprints can provide crucial connections between individuals and crime scenes, they fail to offer a concrete timeline. It’s often difficult, if not impossible, to determine the age of a fingerprint with certainty. As such, a fingerprint found at a crime scene does not prove a suspect’s presence during the commission of the crime, only that they were there at some point.

Additionally, they might argue that a suspect’s prints could have been transferred to the crime scene via an object they previously touched.

Contact a Qualified Dayton Criminal Defense Attorney for Help With Your Case

Despite the widespread use of fingerprints in criminal cases, there has been an ongoing debate about the reliability and accuracy of fingerprint evidence. Some critics argue that the process is fallible, mainly due to human errors made during the analysis. 

Additionally, research has shown that the probability of false positives can be higher than previously thought, leading to concerns about the potential for wrongful convictions.

If you have any questions or need help with any criminal matter, contact us to schedule a free consultation with an experienced Dayton criminal defense lawyer.