Monday, July 14, 2014
The Agony & the Obama Ecstasy: Court of Appeals of Utah Finds Fingerprints Properly Authenticated In Drug Appeal
Police officers find a large plastic bag full of pills in the shoebox in the defendant's closet. The bag contains 478 pills of Obama ecstasy, with the pills shaped like the head of President Barack Obama. Fingerprints are lifted from the bag, and a certified latent fingerprint examiner compares these latent fingerprints to a ten-print card that contains the defendant's known fingerprints. The examiner thereafter finds 17 matching points between the latent fingerprints and one of the defendant's fingerprints from the ten-print card. According to the examiner, ten matching points is considered all but conclusive and at twelve matching points the odds "exceed the population of the earth that it could be anyone else." It's an open and shut case, right? But what about authentication. Let's take a look at the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Utah in State v. Woodard, 2014 WL 3361718 (Utah. App. 2014).
The facts in Woodard were as stated above, with Sandra Grogan, a crime scene examiner, being the officer who processed the latent fingerprints and Paul Rimmasch being the examiner who compared the latent prints with the 10-print card, with the comparison marked as Exhibit 15. The defendant's contention on appeal was that the 10-print card was not properly authenticated.
The Court of Appeals of Utah noted that the issue was governed by Utah Rule of Evidence 901(a), which provides that
To satisfy the requirement of authenticating or identifying an item of evidence, the proponent must produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.
Applying this Rule, the court then concluded that
The trial court had sufficient evidence before it to support a finding that both images on Exhibit 15 were what the State claimed they were....First, both Grogan and Rimmasch testified about the source of the fingerprint image taken from the bag found in Defendant's bedroom. Grogan testified that she enhanced the fingerprint with superglue vapor, photographed the fingerprint a number of times, and loaded those photos onto the DIMS database. Rimmasch then testified that he retrieved the image from the DIMS database and used that image for his comparison with the fingerprints from the ten-print card. This testimony squares with the rule 901 option of authenticating evidence by testimony of a witness with knowledge "that an item is what it is claimed to be."...
Next, the image taken from the ten-print card was authenticated both by Rimmasch's testimony and by the "appearance, contents, substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics" of the card, which was itself admitted into evidence, "taken together with all the circumstances."...R. 901(b)(4). Rimmasch testified that the card contained a number of identifying characteristics, such as the name of the jail where the fingerprints were collected, the date and time of collection, the name of the officer who took the prints, an FBI tracking number, the date of arrest, and Defendant's address. Then, in response to an objection by Defendant's trial counsel and a question from the trial court, Rimmasch further noted that the card contained Defendant's name, social security number, and date of birth. Once Rimmasch made clear that the image he used to create Exhibit 15 came from the ten-print card, the ten-print card itself was entered into evidence.