Some people might assume that if law enforcement says that a person’s fingerprints are found at a North Carolina crime scene, the person was probably there. However, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, fingerprint analysis, which has been a part of police work for over 100 years, is not as reliable as it is sometimes reported to be in court.
Data on fingerprints
A report released by the AAAS in 2017 acknowledged that fingers do have distinctive patterns on them, and those patterns can be used for the identification of individuals. However, there is not sufficient data to know how unique those features are within the entire population, and this may mean that in some courtrooms, the degree of confidence with which an individual can be identified by their fingerprints might be overstated. The report by the AAAS echoes similar work done by other organizations, including the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Research Council and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Reliability of analysis
The use of fingerprints in criminal cases may have led to errors in arrests and convictions. The report by the AAAS said that more research was needed on the reliability of fingerprint analysis. It also identified factors that could affect an examiner’s analysis, such as knowing that the fingerprint analysis they were doing was part of a test. While automated systems can be helpful, they also have limitations.
This report and the earlier reports that came to similar conclusions suggest that if part of a prosecution’s case involves fingerprint analysis, it might be possible in some situations to challenge that analysis as part of a criminal defense strategy. In the years ahead, measures might be taken to ensure that fingerprint analysis is more rigorous, or its use for identification might diminish.