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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Fingerprints And Criminal Misidentification

     Before an Englishman named Sir Edward Henry, in 1901, created a method of filing arrest histories and criminal records according to arrestees' fingerprint set classifications, arrested offenders, to avoid detection as fugitives and repeat offenders, simply used different names. The Henry method of fingerprint classification--based upon organizing prints according to their basic patterns such as whorls, loops, and arches--brought law enforcement into the modern era. Notwithstanding the arrival of DNA technology in the mid 1990s, fingerprint classification remains the principal method of criminal identification and crime file organization in American and the rest of the world. (This type of fingerprint identification should be distinguished from the identification of crime scene fingermarks, called latent prints.)

     Thanks to fingerprints and Sir Edward Henry (and Francis Galton before him), no one who enters the criminal justice pipeline should ever be the victim of a misidentification, especially in the modern era of computer science. While this should never happen, it does occur because criminal justice is government, and most governmental operations are sloppy affairs at best.

     In 2011, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed that in the past five years, 1,480 people, wrongfully identified as wanted offenders, were arrested and incarcerated in Los Angeles County Jails. Police officers are arresting people they have misidentified as fugitives; magistrates issue warrants without precisely identifying the subjects to be arrested; and jail keepers do not make fingerprint checks to insure they are holding the people they think they are incarcerating. Misidentified arrestees have been locked-up for weeks, even months before fingerprint checks revealed their true identities.

     Victims of wrongful incarceration based on misidentification, because of sovereign immunity from lawsuits, have no legal recourse or remedy as long as government employees were merely lazy or stupid rather than malicious. One attorney who represented wrongfully held citizens blamed the problem on bureaucratic "sloth and indifference." He was right, there is no other explanation for this. Even for government work, this is below par. Sir Edward Henry, the father of fingerprint based criminal identification and record keeping, would never have imagined this degree of inefficiency in modern law enforcement.

      Technology and innovation is only as good as the people who administer it.

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