- Fingerprints are strong and reliable evidence, but must be connected to the time of the crime to be relevant. This requirement can be satisfied by showing the defendant did not have another opportunity to leave the prints because, for example, he had never been inside the victim’s house before.
- The witness who collects the latent prints does not have to testify as an expert, but the witness who testifies that the prints “correspond” to the defendant’s prints must first be qualified as an expert.
- The defendant’s fingerprints may be obtained for comparison through a nontestimonial order, collected during the arrest and booking process, or acquired from the records of a prior criminal proceeding.
Admissibility and Reliability
Fingerprint comparison and analysis has been admitted as competent and reliable evidence in North Carolina courts for many years. See, e.g., State v. Miller, 289 N.C. 1 (1975) (court noted the accuracy and general use of fingerprint evidence for identification purposes); State v. Hoff, 224 N.C. App. 155 (2012) ("Our Supreme Court has long recognized the validity of fingerprint analysis. The only limitation [the Supreme Court] has imposed on the admissibility of fingerprint comparisons to prove the identity of the perpetrator of a crime is a requirement that the testimony be given by an expert in fingerprint identification. This well-established precedent is controlling on defendant's admissibility argument.") (internal citations omitted); State v. Parks, 147 N.C. App. 485 (2001) (noting that Supreme Court has “recognized that fingerprinting is an established and scientifically reliable method of identification”). Federal courts applying the Daubert standard have likewise found fingerprint comparisons to be reliable and admissible. See United States v. Crisp, 324 F.3d 261 (4th Cir. 2003) (“the district court was well within its discretion in accepting at face value the consensus of the expert and judicial communities that the fingerprint identification technique is reliable”).
Fingerprint evidence is admissible to identify the defendant as the person who committed a crime with proof that:
- The fingerprints were found at the crime scene, or on an object related to the crime;
- The prints correspond to (i.e., match or are consistent with) the defendant’s prints; and
- The prints were made by the defendant at the time of the crime.
See State v. Irick, 291 N.C. 480 (1977) (probative value of fingerprint evidence depends on whether the fingerprints could have been impressed only when the crime was committed); State v. Wright, 76 N.C. App. 673 (1985) (when fingerprints are found inside residential premises where a crime has been recently committed and there is evidence of non-access to such premises by the accused at any time other than the time of the offense, the state has carried its burden to establish that the fingerprints could only have been impressed at the time of the offense); see also State v. Jeter, 326 N.C. 457 (1990) (fingerprint and palmprint evidence found at the crime scene, coupled with strong circumstantial evidence that the nights of the offenses were the only occasions when defendant’s prints could have been made at the respective premises, was sufficient to allow evidence of a similar rape and burglary that occurred five months earlier at a location about five miles away); but see State v. Bass, 303 N.C. 267 (1981) (defendant explained the presence of the prints by testifying that he broke and entered the home and committed larceny three or four weeks before the crimes charged were committed - state offered no explanation for the presence of defendant’s prints, and no additional evidence connected defendant to the crimes; defendant’s motion for dismissal should have been allowed).
Testimony by a qualified expert that fingerprints found at the crime scene correspond with the defendant’s fingerprints, when accompanied by substantial evidence of circumstances from which the jury could find that the fingerprints could only have been impressed at the time the crime was committed, is sufficient to support a conviction. See State v. Montgomery, 341 N.C. 553 (1995) (providing a thorough review of the case law on this issue); State v. Pittman, 10 N.C. App. 508 (1971). See also Kenneth S. Broun, Brandis and Broun on North Carolina Evidence, §?113, n. 438 (7th ed. 2011).
Photographs of latent prints or the defendant’s fingerprint impressions may be used as substantive or illustrative evidence after laying a proper foundation. See G.S. 8-97 (Photographs as substantive or illustrative evidence); see also G.S. 8C-1, Rules 1001 (Content of Writings, Recordings and Photographs – Definitions), 8C-1002 (Requirement of Original); State v. Foster, 284 N.C. 259 (1973) (this case was decided before the enactment of G.S. 8-97, but it is consistent with it). Palmprint or footprint evidence is subject to the same admissibility requirements as fingerprint evidence. See State v. Banks, 295 N.C. 399 (1978), and the related entry on Footprint and Shoeprint Expert Testimony.
Introduction of Fingerprint Evidence
The introduction of fingerprint evidence usually involves the testimony of two witnesses. The first witness is the officer or agent who processed and lifted the latent fingerprints from the scene or a recovered object, and the second witness is the examiner who compared those latent prints with the defendant’s fingerprints.
Officer/Agent Who Processed and Lifted Latent Fingerprints
The law enforcement officer or SBI agent who processed the crime scene or object for fingerprints and lifted the latent fingerprints should explain those procedures, and tell the jury where and when the latent prints were found and what was then done with the latent lifts. The officer who lifted the latent fingerprints should also establish a chain of custody of those prints. For a discussion of chain of custody, see State v. Abernathy, 295 N.C. 147 (1978) and State v. Shore, 285 N.C. 328 (1974).
The officer who lifted the fingerprints does not have to be qualified as an expert witness (since he or she will not be asked to state an opinion about the identity of the person who made the prints), but it is usually still helpful to ask questions about the officer’s background and training to show the jury the officer’s ability to lift prints properly. Additionally, even if the officer is not tendered as an expert, he or she can still testify about the difference between latent lifts and fingerprints based upon his or her practical experience in working with fingerprints. See G.S. 8C-1, Rule 701 (Opinion testimony by lay witness); State v. Caddell, 287 N.C. 266 (1975) (fingerprint expert may compare prints processed and lifted by others, regardless of the training of the latter); State v. Shore, 285 N.C. 328 (1974) (trial court did not err in admitting officer’s testimony that he had lifted latent fingerprints from an adding machine at the crime scene even though officer had not been qualified as an expert, because the officer’s testimony indicated that he had been lifting prints for ten years, was well qualified to perform the procedure, and because the officer made no attempt to express an opinion whether the prints were defendant’s); but see State v. Robinson, 330 N.C. 1 (1991) (when fingerprints were not found at crime scene, fingerprint expert at trial was improperly permitted to testify that he had discovered identifiable fingerprints in only three percent of the cases in which he had been involved – court ruled that presence or absence of identifiable fingerprints at other crime scenes is not relevant to presence of absence in this case; but court also noted that pursuant to State v. Holden, 321 N.C. 125 (1987), an expert may properly testify as to why fingerprints are sometimes not left behind after an object has been touched).
Sometimes a latent print collected at the scene will not be detailed or clear enough to use for a comparison, but it can be enhanced through photographic means to generate a print that can be compared to other prints. The examiner will then conduct his or her analysis using the enhanced photograph, rather than the original latent print. If photo enhancements were used in the case, the agent who created the photographs should testify to explain the process he or she used and lay the foundation to introduce the photos into evidence.
If the agent who created the photos is not available to testify, the prosecutor can argue that the photo enhancements are “of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in the particular field in forming opinions,” and therefore are admissible as part of the latent print examiner’s expert testimony under Rule 703. For more information, including cases addressing similar “basis of opinion” issues which have been decided post-Crawford, see the related entry on Crawford and Substitute Analysts.
Examiner Who Compared Latent Prints with Defendant’s Fingerprints
The examiner or analyst who compared the latent prints with the defendant’s fingerprint impressions and will be asked to state an opinion about the identity of the latent prints (that is, whether both sets of prints were made by the defendant) must be qualified as an expert. Although it is possible to qualify a witness either expressly or implicitly from his or her testimony, the better practice is to expressly tender the witness to the court as a fingerprint identification expert after laying a proper foundation. See G.S. 8C-1, Rule 702 and 703; State v. Banks, 295 N.C. 399 (1978) (fingerprint expert’s testimony that palmprint found at the scene of the assault was defendant’s was properly admitted to corroborate the prosecuting witness’s identification of defendant as the perpetrator of the crime); State v. Helms, 218 N.C. 592 (1940) (fingerprint expert’s testimony about the comparison of defendant’s fingerprints with those found at the crime scene, which could only have been impressed at the time the crime was committed, was admissible as substantive evidence tending to show that defendant was present when the crime was committed and that he participated in its commission); see also State v. Short, 322 N.C. 783 (1988) (fingerprint evidence was properly admitted despite failure of officer to make identification and despite failure of witness to use photographs to illustrate his testimony).
Verification by Supervisor or Other Agent
Once the examiner makes a preliminary determination that there is a match between the latent print on lift card and the known standards of the defendant, that preliminary match usually has to be reviewed by a supervisor or another experienced analyst to confirm the results before they are considered “final.” The testifying examiner should be permitted to testify about that verification process if it factored into the basis of the witness’s own opinion. See State v. Quick, 329 N.C. 1 (1991) (trial court did not err in allowing agent to testify that another agent verified his identification of defendant’s fingerprint; agent gave his own uncontroverted opinion identifying the print, and the testimony was admissible to establish a basis for the expert opinion); State v. Jones, 322 N.C. 406 (1988) (SBI fingerprint expert was properly permitted under Rule 703 to testify that another SBI latent examiner verified his opinion for the limited, non-hearsay purpose of showing the basis for his opinion). For more information on this issue, including cases addressing similar “basis of opinion” issues that have been decided post-Crawford, see the related entry on Crawford and Substitute Analysts (section D-3, "Verification").
Obtaining the “Known Standard” Prints of Defendant
A sample of the defendant’s fingerprints is necessary to compare with the latent fingerprints found at the crime scene. A defendant who is arrested may be fingerprinted as provided by G.S. 15A-502 or a local fingerprint plan under G.S. 15A-1383, and that fingerprint card may be used for comparison with any latent lifts. If the defendant has not been arrested, then fingerprint samples may be obtained by using a nontestimonial identification order under Article 14 of Chapter 15A. However, a nontestimonial identification order generally may not be used when a defendant is in custody. Instead, an officer should obtain a search warrant or court order authorizing the collection procedure. For more information, see the related entry on Nontestimonial Identification Orders.
Juvenile fingerprints are collected, and may be used for comparison purposes, in the following circumstances:
a) An officer must fingerprint a juvenile who is in the officer’s physical custody and who was at least 10 years old when he or she allegedly committed a nondivertible offense (see G.S. 7B-1701 for list of these offenses) for which a complaint has been prepared for filing as a petition. See G.S. 7B-2102(a).
b) If a juvenile has not already been fingerprinted under G.S. 7B-2102(a), an officer or agency must fingerprint a juvenile who has been adjudicated delinquent, if the juvenile was at least 10 years old when the he or she committed an offense that would be a felony if committed by an adult. See G.S. 7B-2102(b).
c) A juvenile must be fingerprinted if his or her case is transferred to superior court for trial as an adult. See G.S. 7B-2201.
If none of the circumstances described above apply, an officer must obtain a nontestimonial identification order to fingerprint a juvenile. For more information, see the related Juvenile entry on Identification Procedures.
Admissibility of Fingerprint Card at Trial
A booking sheet, FBI fingerprint card, or other document containing a defendant’s fingerprint impressions may be admissible for fingerprint comparison and identification purposes, but the fingerprint card should be redacted so that it does not reveal prior crimes charged against the defendant or any other potentially prejudicial information. See State v. Jackson, 284 N.C. 321 (1973).
What else could it be?
If the print card comes from a prior arrest of the defendant, it may be difficult for the witness to avoid mentioning that fact, even if the particular details of the prior offense are redacted from the card. Per Jackson, any “inference” arising from this type of incidental testimony is not of “such force as to prejudicially influence the jury in their consideration of the question of defendant's innocence or guilt.” 284 N.C. at 333; see also State v. McKnight, 87 N.C. App. 458 (1987) (finding no Rule 404(b) violation for using print card from a prior arrest: “As identity was an important issue in the case, the State offered the exhibit for the sole purpose of identifying the latent fingerprints taken from the credit application completed by the individual suspected of the larceny and submitted in the name of a Larry F. McKinney.”)
To avoid a distracting objection during the witness’s testimony, the prosecutor may want to raise this issue with the court before the witness testifies, and either secure a stipulation from the defense as to the admissibility of the print card, or reach an agreement that the witness will simply describe the fingerprinting process in general terms that are acceptable to both parties, such as “…these fingerprints were taken as part of our agency’s routine record-keeping procedures…” and leave it at that.
The fingerprint card can be authenticated by testimony of the officer who fingerprinted the defendant, by a records custodian who establishes that it is part of the records or files of the office, or by any other qualified officer from the law enforcement agency who is familiar with how fingerprint records are made and kept. If the person who actually impressed the defendant’s prints onto the fingerprint card being offered into evidence is not available to testify, the state should seek to admit the defendant’s fingerprint card as a business record under Rule 803(6). See State v. Windley, 173 N.C. App. 187 (2005) (admission of the fingerprint card without the testimony of the officer who personally impressed the defendant’s fingerprints on the card did not violate Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004) because the fingerprint card was admissible as a business record and therefore was not testimonial); State v. Carroll, 356 N.C. 526 (2002), cert. denied, 539 U.S. 949 (2003) (stating that fingerprint cards are “clearly admissible” under the business records exception to the hearsay rule).