Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (Part VI)

Fifth Circuit holds that “absent novel challenges, fingerprint evidence is sufficiently reliable to satisfy Rule 702 and Daubert,” and a Daubert hearing is not necessarily required, in United States v. John, 597 F.3d 263 (5th Cir. Feb. 9, 2010) (No. 08-10459)

A recent Fifth Circuit case considered an appeal that contended that the trial court failed to hold a Daubert hearing before admitting fingerprint expert testimony. The circuit noted that whether a Daubert hearing is required before an expert testifies generally lies within the discretion of the trial court and was not required for fingerprint testimony that did not raise any novel issues.

In the case, the defendant served as a Citigroup account manager. She accessed the company computers and obtained customer account information which she provided to her half-brother who used the accounts fraudulently. At her trial, the government presented an expert witness who identified her fingerprints on Citigroup documents which were possessed by her half-brother. Following her conviction, she claimed the trial court had “abdicated its gatekeeping function” by not holding a Daubert hearing, under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1999).

The Fifth Circuit held that “in most cases, absent novel challenges, fingerprint evidence is sufficiently reliable to satisfy Rule 702 and Daubert.” The circuit noted that the reliability of fingerprint identification had “been tested in the adversarial system for over a century and has been routinely subject to peer review” with a low error rate. John, 597 F.3d at 275. The circuit joined with other courts that had held a Daubert hearing was not mandated before admitting fingerprint expert testimony, and with courts noting that fingerprint testimony had been well-established, including:

  • United States v. Mitchell, 365 F.3d 215, 246 (3d Cir. 2004) (noting “a district court would not abuse its discretion by limiting, in a proper case, the scope of a Daubert hearing to novel challenges to the admissibility of latent fingerprint identification evidence-or even dispensing with the hearing altogether if no novel challenge was raised”)
  • United States v. Crisp, 324 F.3d 261, 268 (4th Cir. 2003) (stating, in the context of fingerprint evidence, that “[u]nder Daubert, a trial judge need not expend scarce judicial resources reexamining a familiar form of expertise every time opinion evidence is offered”)
  • United States v. Havvard, 260 F.3d 597, 601 (7th Cir. 2001) (noting that the “district court recognized that establishing the reliability of fingerprint analysis was made easier by its 100 years of successful use in criminal trials”)
  • United States v. Collins, 340 F.3d 672, 682-83 (8th Cir. 2003) (“Fingerprint evidence and analysis is generally accepted.… While such evidence may not always satisfy a Daubert challenge due to deficiencies in testing procedures, for example, there is no inherent fallacy in such evidence to make it inadmissible on plain-error review.”)
  • United States v. Sherwood, 98 F.3d 402, 408 (9th Cir. 1996) (no plain error in admitting fingerprint expert testimony which satisfied Daubert factors)

The Fifth Circuit readily dispensed with two other arguments raised on appeal. The fingerprint expert was not required to “explain how many matching points were required to determine that the prints were” identified as the defendant’s prints. The circuit noted that “there is no universally accepted number of matching points that is required for proper identification, as this varies depending on the quality of the print.” John, 597 F.3d at 275. Without indicating a specific number of matching points, the expert provided “extensive testimony regarding the uniqueness of fingerprints generally, as well as the particular identification methodology used,” including “a detailed step-by-step description of the identification process focusing on one specific print.” John, 597 F.3d at 275.

Finally, the circuit rejected the defense argument that the fingerprint testimony was unreliable since there was no “blind verification” by a separate identification by another examiner unaware of the first results. The circuit noted there was no case law requiring a blind verification.

Any challenge to the manner of testing and accuracy of the results went to the weight of the evidence and not admissibility. Even assuming error in admitting the expert testimony, it was harmless based on other independent evidence of guilt at trial.

The John case underscores the discretion the trial court has in fulfilling the Daubert requirements. The case also stands for the proposition that generally accepted areas of expertise may not require a Daubert hearing unless novel issues are involved.

For other cases noting the discretion of the trial court on whether to hold a Daubert hearing, see Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (I), (II), (III), (IV), and (V).

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