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Fingerprints and the Rules of Evidence

When a party seeks to admit fingerprint evidence, they must produce evidence of latent fingerprints, inked prints, and a link between the two. Latent prints are fingerprints collected from a scene typically by a crime scene technician. The technician will testify as to his or her involvement in the case and the process by which he or she obtained the print or prints. Inked prints are known fingerprints of an individual, which are usually obtained by law enforcement through a jail or prison booking. The South Carolina Supreme Court has recognized that the police fingerprint record or inked prints falls into an exception to the hearsay rule under the public records exception or the business record exception. However, in order to admit evidence that the prints from the scene match a known individual, the moving party must also authenticate that the inked prints are of the individual from whom they claim to be. In State v. Anderson, [1] the Court reiterated that there is no “authentication requirement that necessitates the testimony of the actual person who took the fingerprints on the master fingerprint card.” Instead, the moving party is merely required to show “‘evidence as to when and by whom the card was made and that the prints on the card were in fact those of this defendant.’” The court held that the State authenticated the known, inked prints through SCRE 901(b)(4), 901(b)(7), 901(b)(9), and even a generalized approach to Rule 901.

· State v. Rich, 293 S.C. 172 (1987) Fingerprint cards generally fall under the business records exception to hearsay or the public records exception. In this case, the SLED agent, who was qualified as an expert in the area of fingerprint comparisons, properly authenticated the latent prints taken from the crime scene. However, he did not properly authenticate the inked impression taken from the defendant.

· State v. Anderson, 386 S.C. 120 (2009) In a footnote, the Court stated that other federal appellate courts have held that fingerprints are not testimonial and thus do not violate Crawford.

· State v. Anderson, 386 S.C. 120 (2009) For authentication purposes, fingerprints are not a fungible item and they are not analogous to blood samples.

· State v. Anderson, 386 S.C. 120 (2009) The Supreme Court created a two-prong approach to admitting fingerprints. First, the court must determine if the fingerprint card is testimonial in nature, and if it is, does it fall under a hearsay exception. If the fingerprint card falls under a hearsay exception, then the next step is to authenticate. Fingerprint identification was authenticated under SCRE 901 “Distinctive Characteristics” “Public Records” and “Process or System.” The court also found the fingerprints were authenticated under a general approach to SCRE 901. The Court also held that it is not required that the person who actually took the fingerprints [of the defendant] must testify – that would create an unrealistic and “insurmountable obstacle for the State.”

· State v. Heyward, 852 S.E.2d 452 (S.C. Ct. App. 2020) The Court of Appeals found that fingerprints were properly authenticated under SCRE 901(b)(3) – comparison by trier of fact with specimens that have been authenticated.

[1] State v. Anderson, 386 S.C. 120, 127 (2009).


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