EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Monday, January 10, 2022

Supreme Court of Delaware Finds Fingerprinter Authentication is Not Required

Similar to its federal counterpartDelaware Rule of Evidence 901(a) 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.

So, does the State need to call the person who actually fingerprinted the defendant to authenticate his fingerprints? That was the question addressed by the Supreme Court of Delaware in its recent opinion in Pierce v. State, 2022 WL 31643 (Del. 2022).

In Pierce, Cameron Pierce was convicted of (1) two counts of Robbery First Degree, (2) two counts of Wearing a Disguise During the Commission of a Felony, and (3) two counts of Felony Theft. Pierce was convicted in part because his fingerprints were found at the crime scene.

At trial, the State introduced into evidence the latent fingerprint impressions collected by Detective Pantalone during his investigation of the Second Robbery. Pierce did not object. The State then called [Automated Fingerprint Identification System (“AFIS”) section administrator Anthony] DiNardo who testified about the comparison he performed on the latent fingerprint impressions collected by Detective Pantalone. Pierce did not object....The State introduced into evidence DiNardo's report (Exhibit 58) documenting his comparison of the latent prints against the prints generated by AFIS and identified as Pierce's prints. Pierce affirmatively stated that he had no objection to the admission of this key report. Although Pierce claims his counsel affirmatively waived only his objection to the “V” portion of testimony relating to the ACE-V process, his counsel informed the trial judge that he had no objection to the admissibility of DiNardo's palmprint report generally, to certain other related exhibits, or to the court's consideration of DiNardo's testimony.

Pierce later appealed, claiming that his fingerprints could only be authenticated by the person who fingerprinted him. The court disagreed, ruling as follows:

Pierce has identified a few instances where courts have specifically addressed what is required in the way of evidence needed to authenticate prints in the AFIS database as the defendant's “known” prints. For example, pointing to the Supreme Court of South Carolina's decision in State v. Rich, Pierce argues that personal knowledge of the person who took the fingerprints is needed “to properly authenticate ‘known fingerprints.’” However, we observe that in a later case, State v. Anderson, the Court of Appeals of South Carolina rejected this interpretation of Rich, stating that, “[w]e do not believe Rich stands for such a strict authentication requirement,” namely, that the State must present the actual person who took the fingerprint to testify in order to authenticate the fingerprints from the master file card. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed that decision and agreed that “Rich does not establish an authentication requirement that necessitates the testimony of the actual person who took the fingerprints on the master fingerprint card. Instead, it merely requires ‘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.’” We agree with the Supreme Court of South Carolina that “[t]o require this type of testimony [namely, the testimony of the person who actually took the fingerprints] would create an unrealistic standard and, at times, an insurmountable obstacle for the State.”

Our Rules of Evidence suggest a more flexible approach than what Pierce advocates. Indeed, the South Carolina Supreme Court, in Anderson, in rejecting this overly narrow approach, noted that Rich had been decided prior to that state's adoption of the Rules of Evidence, and it discussed cases where several provisions of Rule 901 had been applied, including Rule 901(b)(4), (b)(7) and (b)(9), to authenticate “known” prints. It also noted that, even if the evidence presented by the State in that case “did not precisely fit within one of the enumerated examples provided in Rule 901,” the defendant's ten-print card, was nevertheless, “authenticated under a more generalized approach to Rule 901.” We reject Pierce's overly rigid formulation, and instead acknowledge that there may be various ways to authenticate a defendant's “known” prints depending on the circumstances. Our speaking more precisely on the issue now, given that the trial court has not considered it and our conclusion that Pierce has waived the issue, would risk creating unnecessary inefficiencies, inflexibility, and potential injustice to parties, and would be out of step with the way our common law develops on a case-by-case basis.

Accordingly, we hold that in this case, based upon Pierce's counsel's affirmative statements on the record that Pierce had no objection to the admission of the print evidence report (as explained during DiNardo's testimony), the prejudice to the State in having to address Pierce's challenges after the fact, and the totality of the record before us, Pierce waived his objections to the admission of the palmprint evidence. Further, we reject Pierce's assertion that the trial judge, sua sponte, should have declined to admit the palmprint evidence under these circumstances.



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