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Matthew Radefeld & Dan Juengel
Matthew A. Radefeld and Daniel A. Juengel

Why fingerprint evidence isn’t as reliable as you think

On Behalf of | Oct 3, 2023 | Criminal Law |

Fingerprint evidence has long been considered a gold standard in forensic investigations. Its use in solving crimes dates back over a century, and it has played a major role in countless criminal cases. 

But, is fingerprint evidence really nothing more than another “junk science?” Should it be relegated to the historical dustbin along with other discredited forensic tactics, like bite mark analysis?

There are multiple reasons why fingerprint evidence may not be as foolproof as it seems and why it’s prone to successful challenges in court.

There’s a lack of scientific validation 

One of the primary concerns surrounding fingerprint evidence is the lack of scientific validation. Unlike DNA analysis, which has undergone extensive research and testing to establish its reliability, fingerprint identification lacks a solid scientific foundation. 

Fingerprint analysis is largely based on subjective comparisons made by forensic examiners, and there is no universally accepted error rate or standardized methodology for conducting fingerprint examinations. That alone makes every analysis suspect.

It’s too susceptible to human error and biases

Fingerprint analysis relies heavily on the expertise and judgment of individual examiners. While well-trained forensic experts can be highly accurate, they are far from infallible. 

Studies have shown that even experienced examiners can make errors when comparing fingerprints, and their decisions can be influenced by cognitive biases and contextual information about the case. The potential for confirmation bias (where examiners may unconsciously seek to confirm their initial impressions) or pro-prosecution bias (where examiners seek to please the authorities), is high.

The variability in print quality can be extreme

Fingerprints found at crime scenes are rarely complete, pristine and clear. Smudges and partial prints are common, and examiners often have to make subjective judgments about the level of detail available in a print and whether two prints are a match, further highlighting the subjectivity and potential for error.

Coupled with the fact that fingerprint analysis lacks a standardized system for calculating and reporting error rates, it becomes very difficult to quantify the likelihood of false positives, leaving room for uncertainty in court proceedings.

Databases are incomplete and error-filled

Fingerprint databases are only as reliable as the information they contain. Errors in data entry, incomplete records and outdated information can all lead to misidentifications. When experts in the industry speak of fingerprint analysis today they indicate that fingerprints are better used to rule out the vast majority of potential suspects – not identify a single person.

The subjectivity of fingerprint analysis, lack of scientific validation, human error and biases all contribute to the growing skepticism surrounding the reliability of this forensic technique. It is essential to approach fingerprint evidence with a high degree of caution and skepticism. The stakes are too high in the criminal justice system to rely solely on a technique that may not be as foolproof as once believed. 

If you’ve been charged with a crime and fingerprint evidence is in play, find out more about your defense options. Knowing more about how fingerprint evidence can be challenged in court can help you make informed decisions.