Highlighting The Limits To Fingerprint Evidence

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Fourth Circuit reverses robbery conviction in the absence of evidence that the recovered fingerprint of the defendant was impressed during the offense; circuit notes that "challenges to convictions involving fingerprints on movable objects, in the absence of evidence regarding when the fingerprints were made" requires "sufficient additional incriminating evidence so as to allow a rational juror to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," in United States v. Strayhorn, _ F.3d _ (4th Cir. Feb. 26, 2014) (Nos. 12–4487, 12–4495)

As previously noted in the Federal Evidence Blog, challenges to fingerprint evidence usually involve questions about the admissibility of the expert testimony used to introduce the fingerprint evidence at trial. See, e.g., Fingerprint Expert Testimony Satisfied Daubert Reliability Factors ; Tenth Circuit Joins Consensus On Admissibility Of Fingerprint Evidence ; Fingerprint Records Not Testimonial Under Melendez-Diaz And Bullcoming. However, like most evidence, the probative value often turns on the context and other evidence. A recent Fourth Circuit case highlights the limits to fingerprint evidence as some of the jury counts of conviction were reversed on appeal.

Trial Court Proceedings: Limited Connection To Robbery With Partial Fingerprint Evidence

In the case, two brothers, Janson and Jimmy Strayhorn, were prosecuted for their role in robbing a coin story. Among the charges filed were: (1) Hobbs Act violation for the actual or attempted robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce; (2) using, by brandishing, a firearm in relation to the charged robbery; (3) conspiracy to commit a violation of the Hobbs Act; and (4) using a firearm in relation to the charged conspiracy. At trial, "a fingerprint expert testified that a partial fingerprint on the duct tape used to bind [victim] Sims’s feet belonged to Janson Strayhorn. But the expert testified that he could not determine when that fingerprint had been imprinted on the tape and that such a print could remain on the tape for as long as a year." Strayhorn, _ F.3d at _. The trial court denied Janson's motion for judgment of acquittal based on insufficient evidence. In particular, he contended that there was insufficient evidence to link him to the robbery, for Counts I and II, since the partial fingerprint evidence did not show that his fingerprint was placed during the commission of the robbery.

Fourth Circuit Review: Vacating Some Trial Convictions

The Fourth Circuit noted that before fingerprint evidence found on movable objects can be used to support a conviction, evidence must link the fingerprint being impressed to the charged offense. The circuit cited to the following cases which involved similar facts, some resulting in reversal of the convictions:

  • United States v. Corso, 439 F.2d 956, 957 (4th Cir. 1971) (per curiam) (reversing burglary conviction based on insufficient evidence including circumstantial evidence that the defendant's “fingerprints were discovered on an empty cover of a book of safety matches which had been folded and used to jam a lock assembly on a door leading from an elevator lobby to a stairwell in the building wherein the Credit Union offices were located”; “The probative value of an accused's fingerprints upon a readily movable object is highly questionable, unless it can be shown that such prints could have been impressed only during the commission of the crime.”)
  • United States v. Van Fossen, 460 F.2d 38, 40-41 (4th Cir. 1972) (reversing counterfeiting conviction in the absence of other evidence suggesting that the discovered fingerprints were made at the time of the offense; “To warrant conviction the trier of fact must be able to reasonably infer from the circumstances that the fingerprints were impressed at the time the crime was committed.”)
  • United States v. Harris, 530 F.2d 576, 579 (4th Cir. 1976) (per curiam) (affirming bank robbery conviction based on the defendant’s recovered fingerprints on a note stating “‘this is a holdup’” that was used during the robbery since other evidence, including the defendant’s “detailed confession”)
  • United States v. Anderson, 611 F.2d 504, 508-09 (4th Cir. 1979) (affirming bank robbery convictions based on fingerprints found on movable objects which were supported by “additional substantial evidence”)

The circuit summarized its case law concerning the use of fingerprints:

Viewing these cases holistically, they reveal that in challenges to convictions involving fingerprints on movable objects, in the absence of evidence regarding when the fingerprints were made, the government must marshal sufficient additional incriminating evidence so as to allow a rational juror to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Although the government may meet this burden with circumstantial evidence, that evidence must be sufficiently incriminating to support the conviction.

Here, it is undisputed that the fingerprint evidence against [defendant] Janson Strayhorn as to Counts One and Two consists of one partial fingerprint on the duct tape used in the P & S Coins robbery. The duct tape is, without question, an easily movable object. And the government’s expert conceded that he had no way to determine when Janson Strayhorn’s fingerprint was imprinted on the tape and that the fingerprint could have been impressed even a year earlier. The probative value of the fingerprint evidence here is thus “highly questionable[.]” Corso, 439 F.2d at 957.

Strayhorn, _ F.3d at _.

The government identified other evidence which would support an inference that the fingerprint was impressed at the time of the offense (such as possession of a firearm taken during the robbery, the use of the same vehicle in two robberies), however the circuit found the evidence insufficient. Further, the government's reliance on the defendant's "conspiring with his brother to commit the second robbery [a]s probative of his guilt on the first robbery," was impermissible propensity evidence under FRE 404(b). Consequently, while the circuit affirmed other counts of conviction, it reversed the first two counts based on insufficiency of the evidence.

Conclusion

In the Strayhorn case, there was no suggestion that the fingerprint evidence was inadmissible. However, given that the fingerprint was identified on a movable object, its probative weight was limited in the absence of other evidence to supply the context. The Fourth Circuit ruling shows the need to tie the fingerprint evidence to the context of the offense. However, another way to look at the case could be that it illustrates the importance of "fit" in assessing admissibility of expert testimony. The “fit” principle was noted by the Supreme Court in Daubert, and measures how well the expert testimony is tied to the facts of the particular case. See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 591-92 (1993) (describing the “fit” requirement as “whether expert testimony proffered in the case is sufficiently tied to the facts of the case that it will aid the jury in resolving a factual dispute”) (citation omitted). Without evidence as to how long the fingerprint they tested had been on the object from which they were taken, the value of the expert's positive finding about the print on the subject was open to broad questions.

For further discussion of fingerprint evidence, consider prior posts in the Federal Evidence Blog.

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