Fingerprint Evidence Under Scrutiny in North Carolina Courts

Fingerprint Evidence Under Scrutiny in North Carolina Courts

Expert evidence remains a high burden under Rule 702. On April 7, 2020, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held a trial court committed legal error in admitting an expert’s fingerprint testimony for the prosecution.1

In Koiyan, the defendant was indicted for Robbery with a Dangerous Weapon.2 Part of the facts elicited at trial included an expert opinion by a latent fingerprint examiner with the State Crime Lab, concluding the latent fingerprints found at the store matched the defendant’s fingerprints.3

The defendant’s sole issue on appeal was whether the trial court committed error by admitting the expert opinion of the latent fingerprint examiner.4 The Court analyzed Rule 702 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence, the rule governing expert testimony, which requires a proponent to demonstrate a proposed expert is “qualified” through knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.5 If qualified, the Rule then requires testimony to be based upon: (1) sufficient facts or data; (2) reliable principles and methods; and (3) an application of the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.6

In Koiyan, the expert failed to apply the principles and methods reliably to the facts in that case.7 Here, the expert spoke generally about the science, noting “three levels of detail” and discussing level 1 as the “basic just ridge flow,” level 2 as “ending ridges and bifurcations and their spatial relationship to each other,” and level 3 as the “structure of the ridge” and “the pores located within the ridge.”8

The Court found the following testimony insufficient to conform to Rule 702:

[State]: The latent-print cards that were in State's Exhibit 6, did you compare those to [Defendant's prints] that were State's Exhibit 11?

[Expert]: Yes, ma'am.

[State]: Did any of those latent prints match [Defendant's] prints?

[Expert]: They did.

[State]: Which ones?

[Expert]: 2-4-2, 2-4-3, 2-4-4, and then 2-11-1. All were identified to [Defendant].9

The Court held the State failed to show how the expert applied the principles and methods in a reliable manner to the facts of the case.10 Since the defendant failed to object to the expert testimony during trial, the Court’s standard of review was only “plain error review.”11 The Court found the other evidence in the case “overwhelming" and concluded the trial court did not commit plain error.12

Mastery of expert evidence is crucial in civil and criminal law practice. Parties must be prepared to challenge an expert’s qualifications and principles. Contact the skilled criminal law attorneys at Davis & Davis, Attorneys at Law, P.C., to schedule a consultation today. The above is intended for educational purposes only and constitutes neither legal advice nor an attorney-client relationship.

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  1. State v. Koiyan, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2020 N.C. App. LEXIS 245 *11 (April 7, 2020).
  2. Id. at *1.
  3. Id. at *4.
  4. Id. at *5.
  5. Id.
  6. Id. at *6.
  7. Id. at *12.
  8. Id.
  9. Id. at *11.
  10. Id. at *1-4.
  11. Id. at *5.
  12. Id. at *13.