Document Type

Honors Presentation


This paper investigates the efficacy of fingerprinting as an investigative tool in law enforcement agencies. Fingerprint examiners have been providing expert testimony in courtrooms for over a century using their professional expertise to state whether or not two fingerprints are matches. This foolproof method has recently come under scrutiny as judges have threatened to rule fingerprint evidence inadmissible as it lacks the scientific merit to meet the Daubert criterion. This paper explores the legal issues surrounding fingerprinting, and further studies how psychological science can help the fingerprint examiners meet the Daubert criterion by studying other domains in which psychological science has been useful (i.e., eyewitness identification). Finally, this paper provides a blueprint for the areas of fingerprinting that examiners need to empirically study.

Law enforcement agencies have used fingerprints to identify criminals for hundreds and even thousands of years. Until recently, this has been an infallible method of identification. However, this investigative tool has been under scrutiny after its reliability and validity were challenged in the United States v. Llera Plaza, Acosta, and Rodriguez (2002). This marked the first court case in history in which the judge initially denied fingerprint evidence because it was not able to meet the Daubert criterion, a set of five criteria that establishes scientific reliability and validity (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 1993). These recent legal cases have sparked an ongoing debate between the courts and law enforcement agencies. Though no court has of yet refused the testimony of fingerprint examiners, the date is steadily approaching unless examiners can satisfy the Daubert criterion to establish fingerprinting as a "true" science.

This paper attempts to put this ongoing debate into perspective by providing a detailed development of the area of fingerprinting, including current identification methods. Secondly, this paper will be investigating the legal issues surrounding fingerprint evidence, as well as the steps that need to be taken to satisfy the Daubert criterion. In doing so, we will consider how the field of psychological science can aid in this pursuit, as it has helped other fields establish themselves as sciences (i.e., eyewitness identification). Finally, a number of fingerprint topics that need to be empirically studied through the aid of psychological science will be laid out and discussed.

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Conference Proceedings: Undergraduate Social Science Research Conference





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©2003 by the University of Northern Iowa



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University of Northern Iowa


Cedar Falls, IA