Fifth in a series of articles on the Notary Profession. This article covers Fingerprinting; "unique", perhaps one of the most misused words, truly applies to our fingerprints. I will discuss why we have fingerprints, some of the earliest uses, a bit about types and classifications; and how to obtain fingerprints that will be acceptable. We leave fingerprints whenever we touch something; but the requirements for acceptable prints include proper preparation, environmental control and a skilled technician.
The earliest use of fingerprints was in ancient Babylon, on clay tablets to record business transactions. Fingerprints are a much more humane way to identify criminals compared to previously used methods including branding (the French used a fleur-di-lis symbol), tattooing (in early Rome to identify and prevent desertion of mercenary soldiers) and even maiming (removing the hand of a thief). The objective was the same, to identify career criminals.
While most of the body's skin is smooth, our fingers, palms and feet have "friction ridges", which allow our extremities to grip, manipulate, and have traction. A carryover from prehistoric times, friction ridges helped us climb rocks and trees to enter our caves and gather food. Our extremities were our first "tools". Friction ridge patterns established prior to birth; are unique and unalterable. It is these slightly higher friction ridges that touch smooth surfaces and leave a distinctive pattern: a fingerprint.
Dactyloscopy is the science of using fingerprints to identify a person. The three basic fingerprint patterns are the Arch, Loop and Whorl (circle). The basic patterns are further classified until similarities are eliminated, leaving a single qualifying fingerprint. The FBI now receives over 34,000 fingerprint cards daily, classification is required to categorize each person; comparison against the database (one of the largest and fastest growing databases in the world) would be impractical.
Friction Ridges are subject to wear, being slightly higher than the base skin layer. As a fingerprint technician, I have noticed that some people have very "shallow" ridges. This occurs from occupational and hobby activities. Some of the more difficult people to fingerprint successfully (accepted for classification) include: medical professionals who wash their hands literally hundreds of times a day; string instrument players not using a "pick"; artists, painters, and others working with chemicals who do not wear protective gloves; sailors working with ropes and receiving the inevitable "rope burns"; and employment in overseas laundries still using phosphates. There are many others.
Most fingerprinting is done using "Live Scan", Inkpad, or "Slab and Roller"; each has advantages. The Live Scan method is basically a scanner that photographs the fingertips - no ink is used. It is generally very fast and accurate. Unfortunately, though promising, few requesters are equipped to accept the electronic feed, mobile (at your location) units are very expensive, and there is no "hard copy" fingerprint card produced. Most fingerprinting is done with a specialized "inkpad" (not the inkpad used with rubber stamps!) and a device to hold the fingerprint card. In difficult cases, where the applicant has very shallow "ridges" - the Glass Slab and Roller replaces the inkpad. Slab and Roller allows the fingerprint technician to precisely control the amount of ink spread by the roller on the slab and subsequently "picked up" by the fingertips. Properly prepared, the smooth glass slab is almost transparent - even with the ink!
You will need to present to the Notary / Fingerprint Technician positive government issued photo ID. The technician signing the card is aware they are (typically) preparing an entry for the FBI's database; and will insist on very positive ID. Most print cards require the use of black ink. Print your name - Very Legibly - at the top, including full middle name, not middle initial. You sign in the "signature of person fingerprinted" box, and the technician signs and dates as "official taking fingerprints". Complete the entries prior to fingerprinting. Be sure to include the business card of the fingerprint technician when you submit the card! If there is any question, the technician can then be contacted; as there is no place for the technician phone number on the card. Keep a card for yourself, a good fingerprint technician will offer a redo or refund if their work is rejected.
Prior to fingerprinting the hands should be washed (twice) with soap and hot water taking care to remove all soap, hand cream, etc. Next, a "pre-print" alcohol wipe is applied to the fingertips further drying the fingertips. A skilled technician will arrange the fingerprint card holder based on the height of the client, and position their client's stance such that the arm and wrist are able to turn smoothly. It is very important that the room be a bit cooler than comfortable - prints taken in a hot or humid environment will suffer from "running" and will not be acceptable. Avoid fingerprinting a seated subject.
Follow the directions of the technician. Most of all do not attempt to "assist" in the procedure. It is a mistake, and will degrade the prints if you add pressure, actively turn your finger or watch the process. It is really best if you close your eyes or look away. From my experience, watching will involuntarily cause you to "assist". An experienced technician will take a few "test" prints on scrap paper to judge the amount of pressure (different for applying ink / taking the fingerprint) and "twist speed" required for optimal results. Occasionally an individual print (one of 20 on a fingerprint card) will be substandard. "ReDo" tabs, rectangular peel and stick "overlays" are used to correct a misprint - no more than three per card is customary.
Fingerprints are truly unique. The DNA of identical twins is identical; however, their fingerprints differ! Our appearance changes dramatically over our lifetimes; our fingerprints do not. Sir Francis Galton, (British anthropologist and a cousin of Charles Darwin), in his landmark book "Fingerprinting, 1892" included one of the first classification systems for fingerprinting. He calculated that the odds of identical fingerprints were one in 64 billion! Take good care of those fingertips, with the exception of that slight statistical deviation; they are truly unique.
Note: New York State does not specifically license fingerprint technicians. If such a license existed I would have it. The authority for me to fingerprint comes from my New York State Notary Commission, allowing me to administer "oaths" and "establish identity". Not one single card has ever been rejected for lack of "authority". Prior to signing as "Official taking fingerprints" each notary must investigate their state and local laws regarding licensing; and obtain proper training. Similar to Notarization; Fingerprinting involves public trust and the responsibilities are profound. Be certain you are authorized and trained, and can tell at a glance "good from bad" prior to commercial operation. Consult an attorney for legal advice prior to fingerprinting in your jurisdictions.