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The Weight Of Fingerprints in Criminal Cases

fingerprint-1Fingerprint evidence, although sometimes not as high-profile as other high-tech crime-solving methods like DNA typing, is still very much used in criminal investigations and cases. While the principle that no two people can have the same fingerprints cannot be scientifically validated, fingerprint evidence is generally considered to be highly reliable and is particularly accessible to juries: You don’t need a Ph.D. or a scientific lecture on genetics to understand that your own fingers contain a contour map of ridges and whorls that is completely unique.

Matching Fingerprints

Fingerprint evidence rests on two basic principles:

  • A person’s “friction ridge patterns” (the swirled skin on their fingertips) don’t change over their lifetimes.
  • No two people have the same pattern of friction ridges. Even identical twins have different fingerprints.

Police officers use fingerprints to identify defendants by comparing prints found at a crime scene with prints already in police files. (Today, the FBI has a collection of prints that numbers in the millions.) People’s fingerprints can be on file for a variety of reasons. For example, people may be fingerprinted when they are arrested or when they begin certain occupations. And it is increasingly popular for parents to ask local police departments or schools to fingerprint their young children, a grim reminder that children who are abducted or are the victims of other heinous crimes often cannot be identified otherwise.

Fingerprint experts can disagree about how many points in common are needed to declare a match between two sets of fingerprints. For example, some experts will declare a match based on only 12 points in common, whereas other experts may require up to 20 points in common before declaring a match.

Fingerprints Evidence in South Florida Case

When Javonta Pollock allegedly stole jewelry worth $2,500 from a Boca Raton home last week, he also left a thumb print on the patio door. It led to the 19-year-old’s arrest-full story and report by Ben Wolford, Sun Sentinel.

But experts caution that fingerprints don’t solve crimes as often as they seem to on popular cop shows. In fact, fingerprint examiners call them “chance impressions” — a stroke of luck for a detective without a lead.

“It’s not going to be what you see on CSI or on TV where the screen lights up and goes, ‘match, match, match,’” said Mark McDonald, forensic identification unit manager with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

In 1976, Miguel Gonzalez and two accomplices bound and gagged a man at a Pompano Beach grocery store they were robbing. They executed him with a single gunshot and loaded a van with groceries. Investigators at the time found prints on the van but couldn’t match them.

Eighteen years later, Broward Sheriff’s Detective Frank Ilarraza dug back into the case. Examiners discovered the prints belonged to Gonzalez, who had since landed in a Pennsylvania prison for murder and attempted armed robbery.

“Almost in every homicide case we end up with latents, and it can corroborate either the suspect’s confession or exclude them,” Ilarraza said.

Most fingerprints are fragile. Often they’re 98 or 99 percent water, the rest oil and protein. Unless the finger smudged into blood or grease, the Florida sun can bake a common sweat print off a surface in a few days.

There’s no way to date a print, they don’t reveal a person’s gender at a glance and many surfaces — brick walls, tree trunks — don’t make a good fingerprint canvas.

It seems obvious that criminals ought to wear gloves, but many crimes are spontaneous, experts said. And besides, it might rouse suspicion.

“Who wants to get caught with gloves on?” McDonald said.


Even with a perfect print and a match, investigators aren’t done.

In the Boca Raton burglary case last week, detectives placed Pollock at the scene but still had to confirm he had no business being there. They ran his name past the homeowner and his landscaper; neither knew who he was.

West Palm Beach Criminal Defense Attorney

An arrest is not the be-all, end-all of a criminal case. What matters is how the case is resolved. Being proactive after your arrest can often make the difference between whether you are facing felony or misdemeanor charges, or whether any charges are filed against you at all.

At the law firm of Andrew D. Stine, P.A., we have an exceptional track record of getting many criminal charges dismissed. We are also experienced in clearing arrest records through the expungement process. If your record has been cleared and you are asked on a job application or apartment lease if you have been charged with a crime, you can confidently answer, “no.”

Free consultation 24/7: Call West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyer Andrew D. Stine, P.A. at (561) 832-1170. Se habla español.

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