Fingerprint Admissibility Litigation Under Daubert

Although the U.S. Supreme Court explained in its shift from Frye to the Federal Rules of Evidence that "... a rigid general acceptance requirement would be at odds with the liberal thrust of the Federal Rules and their general approach of relaxing the traditional barriers to opinion testimony" (ref. 4, p. 589), the application of Daubert has not worked so smoothly. Fingerprint identification has been used in the legal system since the turn of the 20th century. To say that it has been generally accepted would be a gross understatement. In any jurisdiction using Frye as an admissibility standard, no legal challenge would be allowed because of the universal acceptance of fingerprints. With the Daubert decision and relegation of "general acceptance" to only one of several possible admissibility criteria, there have been numerous legal challenges to fingerprint testimony in Federal Courts.

The challengers have conceded that fingerprint examiners have generally accepted that there are procedures available to compare known and unknown fingerprints, but they took issue with the testability, peer review, and error rate/standards components of the fingerprint identification methods (United States v. Plaza27). Extensive admissibility hearings have been held in some cases. Other cases have relied on the hearing records of cases previously conducted and decided. In all cases, fingerprint identification testimony was ultimately allowed to be presented to the jury. However, because general acceptance is not a deciding factor as it was under Frye, there is nothing to necessarily preclude having an admissibility hearing challenging the evidence. This is a major distinction between Frye and Daubert: in a Frye jurisdiction, no further admissibility challenge is allowed until the consensus about general acceptance has changed. In a Daubert jurisdiction, the possibility of an admis-sibility hearing always exists, even for evidence of longstanding utility, community acceptance, and proven reliability.

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