From the moment fingerprints became the most reliable way to identify criminals and match evidence to crime, criminals have been trying to get rid of them.
IT STARTS IN THE WOMB
Friction ridge patterns that create fingerprints start in about the fourth month of pregnancy. Their purpose is to help us grip objects we pick up. They remain the same throughout our lifetimes, although they grow larger until we become adults. Then they stay distinctively ours until we decompose.
According to reporter Mimi Hall, writing for USA TODAY, “It was after dark when Border Patrol agents in Douglas, Arizona, nabbed Mateo Cruz-Cruz allegedly jumping the fence from Mexico. At first, they noticed nothing unusual about his fingers. But when they got him to the station to take his prints, special operations supervisor Ulysses Duronslet says, the agents made a gruesome discovery: "The tips of the 25-year-old man’s fingers were blackened and burned.” Apparently, Cruz-Cruz had a prior conviction for sexual assault of a minor in Iowa and was deported in March of 2004.
Officials claim finding more and more criminals who alter their fingerprints by burning the tips, using acid or other corrosives. A 2007 federal court recently sentenced Dr. Jose L. Covarrubias, of Nogales, Mexico, to 18 months in prison for replacing the fingerprints of a fugitive named Marc T. George with skin from the bottom of his feet. Although a U.S. citizen, Dr. Covarrubias holds a Mexican medical license. The 49-year-old doctor faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison. George, a Jamaican national who was involved in a drug ring, was caught and arrested sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border May 2006, bandaged and limping badly from the painful procedure. He was facing money-laundering charges.
Every time our government ratchets up efforts to catch and identify people, Manuel Padilla, chief border patrol agent in New Orleans, says: “Whenever we do something, there’s always a counteraction to try to beat it.” Since 9/11 and our government’s tightened security measures, more people are taking similar steps to erase fingerprints, just as John Dillinger did when he tried to burn off his prints with corrosive acid in the '30s.
When officers suspect something suspicious while printing, they inquire further. Today, in more serious crimes, the printing procedure involves taking full palm prints. Eagle-Tribune writer Patten says that in 2006, police used facial recognition software technology at the Middleton jail to identify a prisoner who had bitten off his fingertips to avoid being deported. (Photo above left. Source: Andover Police Department and an IAI Presentation; Courtesy, Mr. K. J. Burke).
HOW TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?
Another more recent example, this time rather successful, is Randolph Clifton Kling. Kling managed to obtain 83 driving licenses after altering both his appearance and thumb print. He got by for more than a decade, until finally arrested in 2000.
So what’s next? Likely biometrics — using patterns from the retina and iris. Facial recognition use is becoming more widespread; and, of course, vocal or voice recognition is always an option when circumstances merit. All these systems have their problems though, and so far, DNA is the most reliable. That is, until someone figures out how to manipulate our genes.