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Impressions or reproductions of the distinctive pattern of lines and grooves on the skin of human fingertips.

Fingerprints are reproduced by pressing a person's fingertips into ink and then onto a piece of paper. Fingerprints left on surfaces can be obtained and examined through a dusting process and other processes conducted by forensics experts.

The lines and grooves in fingertips are unique personal characteristics, and thus no two persons have identical fingerprints. Although various scientists had earlier observed the intricate and varying patterns of fingerprints, their use as evidence in trials is undocumented in Anglo-American law before the nineteenth century. In 1880 Henry Faulds, a Scottish physician, suggested in a letter to the British journal Nature that fingerprints could be used for identification purposes in a criminal investigation. Courts in the United States began to accept fingerprints as identification evidence in legal cases in the early twentieth century.

Fingerprints may be used in both civil and criminal courts when they are relevant to a case. They are most common in criminal prosecutions, where they may be used to identify the defendant and connect the defendant to the crime. In a murder prosecution, for example, the defendant's fingerprints on the murder weapon may be offered as evidence tending to show that the defendant committed the crime.

The taking of fingerprints from a criminal defendant raises no Fifth Amendment concerns. Under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, no person may be compelled to be a compulsory witness against himself or herself. However, this provision generally applies only to involuntary confessions and forced testimony. A person suspected of a crime does not have the right to be free from the taking of fingerprints. Criminal suspects may also be required to surrender other personal information, such as physical appearance and measurements, handwriting and voice samples, teeth bites, normal walking gait, and normal standing posture. Unlike most of these characteristics, fingerprints cannot be easily changed.

Fingerprints are also used outside of court for a variety of purposes. Federal, state, and local lawmakers use them to help manage government resources. For instance, many states fingerprint the recipients of public assistance to ensure that only qualified recipients receive assistance. In many jurisdictions a set of fingerprints or a thumbprint is taken from a person who is arrested and then released before her or his court date. This gives law enforcement authorities an identifying characteristic to use in apprehending the defendant in case the defendant does not appear in court for the prosecution.

In Georgia, liquor manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers must send a set of fingerprints to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation when they apply for a license to conduct business in the state. The fingerprints are checked against those of convicted criminals as part of a background check on the applicant (Ga. Code Ann. § 3-3-2 [1996]).

Fingerprint information is easily accessible to police departments across the United States. Under 28 U.S.C.A. § 531 (1996), Congress appropriates funds for the creation and maintenance of a national computer database containing the fingerprints of convicted criminals and former criminal suspects. The database is called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Any state that requires persons convicted of Sex Offenses to submit DNA samples qualifies for the funding and federal support needed to implement the system.

DNA fingerprinting, or profiling, identifies the chemical pattern in an individual's genetic material. It is a very complex analysis. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted by courts in the United States and generally is considered to yield results that are as accurate as those of regular fingerprinting.

There has been some recent controversy over the admission of fingerprints in criminal cases. At least 40 challenges have been filed against the admission of fingerprints in courts, most of them in the past 10 years, and one was upheld. U.S. District Court Judge Louis Pollak ruled against the use of fingerprints in a murder trial in Philadelphia in 2002, but reversed himself two months later. A book questioning the reliability of fingerprints, Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification by Simon Cole, was published in 2001.

Further readings

Aitken, C.G.G. 1995. "Evaluating DNA Evidence for Identification." Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 4.

Cohen, Peter J. 1996. "How Shall They Be Known? Daubertv. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals and Eyewitness Identification." Pace Law Review 16.

Cole, Simon. 2001. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

Killerlane, James J. 1995. "Finger Imaging: A Twenty-first Century Solution to Welfare Fraud at Our Fingertips." Fordham Urban Law Journal 22.

Mrowka, Molly J. 1996. "Criminal Procedure: Identification by Use of Thumbprints." McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific 27.

Vigoda, Ralph. 2003. "Fingerprints Put To Test." Philadelphia Inquirer (January 28).


DNA Evidence; Forensic Science.


noun identification, identification records, impression, impression of fingers, imprint, marks, marks left by a person's finger, means of identification, prints
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