Fishing License for British Police


The Blair regime promised Parliament that information collected as part of the Internal Passport programme would only be used to check identities. It now admits that British police forces will be encouraged to go on a fishing expedition in an attempt to clear up over one million unsolved crimes.

The idea is that police will be able to check fingerprints, collected for the Internal Passports and External Passports, against a huge list of unsolved crimes where fingerprint information was collected.

At first pass it sounds like a great idea on the basis of “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. Unfortunately it is more likely to create years of work for lawyers, appealing unsafe convictions and human rights issues. It may also divert a huge amount of police resource for little benefit.


The police rarely recover a fingerprint as clean and defined as this

Most people assume that fingerprinting is a science. That is very far from the truth. Retina scans and DNA printing appear to offer a higher match probability but all biometric records are only probability indicators. No one yet knows for certain how unique any of these records really are – and that is just records that are perfect!

At most crime scenes, there are fingerprints to be found. Usually there are a very large number, none of which may have been made by a criminal. Of those prints, most are incomplete or smudged.

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The normal damage and aging of skin causes changes in fingerprints

As a person ages, his or her fingerprints alter. Sometimes the alteration is significant, as a result of scar tissue from an injury. That means that a print taken in 2007 may look very different from a print made by the same person a decade previously.

Then there is the possibility that a criminal has planted false prints. Some modern materials used in medicine and theatre are able to take a very high definition copy of a fingerprint and then be attached to someon else. This is even good enough to be invisible to normal human observation when the false print is being worn. The risk of this situation increases in the more recent crimes, both because of the improvements in materials used to fake the print, and because the technique has been used in films, plays and television programmes.

Under any criminal system that assumes innocence until guilt is proven beyond all reasonable doubt, no individual at trial should ever be convicted on fingerprint evidence alone, because there is always doubt in any measurement of probability. Fingerprinting works very well when taken together with other evidence, although many juries will have convicted people when the evidence should have been suspect.

In current crimes, fingerprinting is a good way of identifying a potential suspect from criminal records. This includes an improved probability because other information from past crimes will be available, previously convicted criminals are a relatively small percentage of the total population, and a current investigation can expect to confirm, or eliminate, a suspect on the basis of many other pieces of evidence, which become harder to find as time goes by.

A partial fingerprint may show a number of points of reference that are the same as similar partial prints from a number of other people. Therefore, the smaller the section of print, the lower the safety of reliance on that information as a method of identification. One brain-challenged politician claimed yesterday that this not to be a problem because the Internal Passport fingerprints will be perfect. There are two elements to the stupidity of that view. The first is an assumption that fingerprints will be taken correctly in all cases for the Internal Passports. Even skilled police fingerprinters, taking prints from people in custody, sometimes fail to make sure the prints are accurately taken and of good definition. Secondly, a perfect Internal Passport print could exactly match the perfect partial prints of a number of different people in those areas that are shown by the partial prints, although only one person might match the perfect print where there was a perfect full print available from a crime scene.

If police now use fingerprints from the Internal and External Passport systems to find perpetrators of long forgotten unsolved crime, they will certainly obtain matches with people who were at the scene at some time before, during, or after the crime was committed. Rarely will these prints have been left by the perpetrators.

The problem police will then face is how they eliminate people from their new enquiries. This becomes a bigger problem as the search goes further back in time. In most cases it will be possible to find people who would be available shortly after a fresh crime is committed. That places a larger burden on the fingerprint evidence and increases the possibility of unsafe convictions. It also increases the risk that police will be sued under human rights legislation.

Risk further increases as the Blair regime continues to pour out new defective legislation that moves the burden of proof in more and more crimes from the police to the suspect.

Judges can be relied on to weed out some of the unsafe cases before conviction. That is good for those charged with crime they may not have been involved in, but it increases the financial burden on the judicial system. It also does nothing to address the stress suffered in the lengthy period from a decision to prosecute through to the trail date and the trial by media that will be conducted during the period before acquittal.

Another case of a government incapable of reason and fairness.


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