Most of us have seen a few “whodunit?” police dramas, in which an eccentric team of detectives investigate the scene of a crime, gather all sorts of cinematically enhanced “evidence,” and always solve mysteries with entirely unrealistic swiftness and certainty.
In those shows, as is often the case in the real world of law enforcement, one of the first and most telling clues is the fingerprint. Finding intact fingerprints at the scene can help investigators identify who was present, what they touched, and various other inductive inferences which can lead to a reconstruction of the events in question.
Far more frequently, however, fingerprints are used for the mundane purpose of identifying suspects who cannot produce other forms of identification. Those fingerprints are also cross-referenced with city, state, and sometimes national databases to check for past crimes, outstanding arrest warrants, and other information necessary for police to identify and clear suspects before moving forward with either an arrest or release.
In Mesa, city officials recently equipped police with mobile fingerprint scanning devices which allow officers to check fingerprints on the street, rather than having to drag the suspect to a booking facility just to learn their identity and whether they have any outstanding warrants, reports the East Valley Tribune.
The mobile devices automatically connect to the Arizona Automated Fingerprint Identification System, allowing officers to quickly surmise whether a suspicious individual lied about their identity, produced false documentation, or is wanted for a crime or for violating a court order.
In Arizona, A.R.S. § 13-3905 permits police officers to seek court orders to collect “evidence of identifying physical characteristics” – including fingerprints – if the officer can support a reasonable belief that a felony has been committed, the evidence “may contribute” to the identification of the individual who committed the felony, and the officer could not otherwise obtain the evidence .
This statute has been challenged numerous times on the basis of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee that citizens shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and it has proven legally sturdy to this point. Per case law relating to § 13-3905, a suspect can be temporarily detained by an investigating officer for three hours (or perhaps even longer) in order that the officer can collect identifying physical evidence. The officer need only demonstrate reasonable cause – a lower standard than the infamous “probable cause” needed for most searches of private property – in order to gain authority for a so-called “prearrest detention” to collect identifying evidence.
Because mobile fingerprinting devices have proven useful in the East Valley, it seems likely that more agencies will begin using them in the near future. What remains unclear is how those devices will fit into existing statutory schemes which are designed to facilitate police investigations while simultaneously safeguarding the privacy rights of individuals who are detained.
If you are in a public place and a police officer wishes to question you as a bystander, you have the right to refuse – the U.S. Constitution protects your right to remain silent to avoid incriminating yourself. Doing so may make the officer suspicious, however, which may prompt temporary detention for fingerprinting or other “prearrest” procedures. If you are so detained, you have the right to speak to an attorney. If the officer detained you for dubious reasons and cannot meet the “reasonable cause” requirement with supporting facts before a judge, then any evidence collected from you might be invalid and inadmissible if you are later charged with a crime.
Every detail of your detention might be critical to your defense. Remember to demand to speak to an attorney and insist upon exercising your right to remain silent.