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LETTER OF THE DAY - Dangerous police 'fishing' expeditions

Published:Tuesday | September 7, 2010 | 9:00 AM

The Editor, Sir:

Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Les Green says the Jamaican police now use non-criminal databases for crime solving. Crime suspects will therefore now include those who give fingerprints for security clearance.

The law protects those on the criminal database. Those who are not charged or complete their sentences can apply to have their fingerprints removed from the database. They can once more be presumed innocent.

The law does not protect those on the non-criminal database. The police now keep their fingerprints indefinitely. For the rest of their lives, these persons will be among those whom the police presume guilty when searching for fingerprint matches.

Crime-solving matches

Identity matches (for a job or for travel) require checking complete prints of all ten fingertips, taken under controlled circumstances. On the other hand, crime-solving matches require no more than a single fragment of a blurred, distorted, or bloody fingerprint.

Fingerprint experts have been known to be wrong about fragments. Some experts may be poorly trained, or badly equipped. Some may suffer from a desire to confirm alleged guilt. Since fingerprint evidence is regarded as infallible, many experts are unwilling to admit error. Nonetheless, USA authorities report that about 2,000 errors in fingerprint matches are discovered each year.

Wrongly matched

Attorney Brandon Mayfield's fingerprints were 'found' on a bag at the Madrid bombing that occurred when he was in Oregon, USA. Policewoman Shirley McKie's fingerprints were 'found' in a murdered woman's house that she had never entered. Experts in these cases proved the fingerprints were wrongly matched. In Mayfield's case, the FBI apologised for the error and he received US$2 million in compensation. McKie received compensation, but no apology.

Most persons do not have the resources to prove fingerprint experts wrong. The law therefore protects the law-abiding by presuming them innocent and not automatically subject them to search.

ACP Green might find it useful to consider an approach to fingerprinting based on legal protection of those presumed innocent. Credibility could perhaps best be built with less net-fishing and a more targeted approach toward fingerprint matching.

I am, etc.,

YVONNE MCCALLA SOBERS

sobersy@yahoo.com