Finger Prints in Criminal Justice

Finger Prints

Damian Anderson

Columbia College

The use of finger prints have revealed to be trustworthy method of identifying suspects involved with a particular crime.  It is often referred to in the fields of film, television and literature, and because of that, there are a number of misconceptions concerning its methods and use. Similar to DNA evidence, finger prints have gained a CSI effect, where citizens get the idea that finger prints can be easily extracted from any surface, but on the contrary is actually can be a difficult process. There is a need to understand why and how fingerprinting works. Let’s begin with some history.

Fingerprinting isn’t a new by any means whatsoever. Though it has been popularized in the United States, finger prints have been used by different culture for different reasons besides criminal investigation. For example, finger prints were used for business transaction in ancient Babylon (US Marshals). Clay tablets of thumbs prints have even been discovered as far out as China (US Marshals). Finger prints were used on government documents in 14th century Persia.

However, the first official use of finger printing was by Sir William Hershcel in 1858 for the use of contracts (Lyman, 2014). And it wasn’t until 1891 that fingerprints were used to identify criminals (Lyman, 2014). This new system devised by Juan Vuchetich, which he bases on the Bertillion system (US Marshals). The Bertillon system, named after Alphonse Bertillon, involved a formula that applied the identification of specific people based on bony part of the body (Lyman, 2014).  This system was proved to be practical when Juan Vuchetich identified a mother who murdered her two sons (US Marshals).  As the years continued, finger printing became a cornerstone in criminal justice.  Many prisons began using fingerprints on criminals; the first systematic system was used in 1903 in the New York State Prisons (US. Marshals).

As mentioned early, finger prints aren’t a simple concept but a complex entity. There are different kinds of prints and patterns. Latent prints for example, also known as patent prints, are transferred when an object it touched (Lyman, 2014). This transfer occurs due to the natural grease and oil in our skin (Lyman, 2014). These prints are usually found on smooth surfaces and can be visible to the naked eye (Lyman, 2014). Prints that are the result of pressing against plastic and leaves and impression are called plastic prints (Lyman, 2010). A third type of print is called a dust prints (visible print). This is a when a finger leaves a print among a “dirt surface.” A dirt surface can include” flour, dust, blood, or oil (Lyman, 2014).

Though each finger print is individualized to each person, there are only a number of patterns applied to each print. There are 3 generalized groups of patterns which include the arch, the loop, and the whorl (Lyman, 2014). The divided patterns include: arch loop, whorl, plain arch, accidental, loop, double loop, central pocket loop, and tented arch (US Marshals).

There are a number of different methods used to uncover the prints found. Black powder is a magnetic powder in which particles attach to the print to make it visible (Lyman, 2014).  Iodine fumes are released on a surface in which discolors the print and allows it to be noticed (Lyman, 2014). Lasers have also been used and are favorable because it is easy, clean and requires no pretreatment of the surface area (Lyman, 2014).

Preserving prints can also be a complicated task. Since they are evidence prints need to be sent to a lab for further investigation, but there are times where the print is on a surface that is too large/difficult to transport. These prints are transferred through a thin adhesive tape that transfers the print to a card (Lyman, 2014). Of course the investigator must make sure there are no air pockets in the adhesive that may defect the print (Lyman, 2010).

A final important detail concerning finger prints is the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. This is a constantly running system that helps all law enforcement from state level to federal level, to both solve and prevent crime (FBI). It is not only limited to identifying criminal through print, it includes “mug shots; scars and tattoo photos; physical characteristics like height, weight, and hair and eye color; and aliases” (FBI).  This biometric database is the largest in the world containing information on more than 40 million subjects (Lyman, 2014).

Fingerprinting may be a common phrase but is definitely not a simple subject. There are a number of variable when collects, analyzing and preserving prints left at a scene. As time goes on, technology used by crime enforcement will only become greater and more effective and yet this “simple” concept will continue to aid us. The finger print will continue to be an everlasting use for identifying suspects and preserving safety for communities.

Works Cited:

Lyman, Michael D. (2014). Criminal Investigation: The art and Science. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Publishing. Print.

FBI. (n.d.) Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Web. Retrieved from

US Marshals (n.d.) U.S. Marshal Service for Students. US Marshals. Web. Retrieved from


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