Some defendants slip through cracks without fingerprints being recorded

It’s a Tuesday in Tyrone’s District Court, and Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller isn’t happy a defendant who has come into his courtroom to waive his preliminary hearing on felony theft charges hasn’t been fingerprinted.

The defendant told Miller on Tuesday morning he had an appointment for later that afternoon at Blair Central Booking to get fingerprinted, so Miller checked. Now with the defendant back in the courtroom, Miller explained he found out from Central Booking that no appointment was made, so he took the liberty of making it for the defendant for later that evening.

“You understand, it’s a condition of your bail,” Miller said, reminding the defendant that when Miller arraigned him on the charges on Aug. 4, he was released on unsecured bail and told him he needed to arrange for his fingerprints to be taken before his next court appearance.

“If you don’t get your fingerprints, your bail can get revoked, and I can place you in Blair County Prison,” he said.

By law, when a person gets charged with a criminal offense, he or she is fingerprinted. But according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, defendants in criminal cases don’t always get fingerprinted.

For the first quarter of 2014, Blair County had a fingerprint rate of 81.9 percent, meaning that fingerprinting was done in 567 of the 592 criminal cases filed during that time span.

In the first half of 2013, the county’s rate was 82.7 percent, not far off from the 81.2 percent rate recorded in the second half of 2013.

If a defendant isn’t fingerprinted, an arrest doesn’t show up on a person’s criminal history, something that can have implications for police, courts and even employers, particularly schools, down the road.

“It tracks the criminal offense and the crime through the system,” said Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt, who added that fingerprints also aid police in identifying people in future cases, particularly when officers encounter someone who is less than forthright about their identity.

Pratt said several times each month, Altoona officers deal with someone who has no identification, and although they can provide a name and a birth date, the information just doesn’t add up.

“Their fingerprints come back and tell us their true identity,” Pratt said.

Even when police do take a person into custody, officers may not be able to get them fingerprinted “if they’re too intoxicated or too violent to fingerprint,” Pratt said. In those cases, a note is made in the defendant’s paperwork to alert the magisterial district court that a fingerprint order is required.

It also helps police identify suspects, although not as often as television and movies might portray, Pratt said.

Blair County’s rate ranks about 32 out of the 67 counties in the state.

“Most are in the mid-80s tier range,” noted Robert Merwine of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

Merwine said when the commission began tracking the rate at which defendants are fingerprinted in 2006, the statewide rate was a mere 66.6 percent. In the first quarter of 2014, that number was up to 87.9 percent. To put it in perspective, Merwine noted the swing of 20 percentage points translates into 40,000 cases, cases that previously were without fingerprints.

“Obviously, the key issue is when the fingerprint orders aren’t completed, then we will not have an accurate criminal history on an individual,” Merwine said.

Since the opening of the Blair County Booking Center in August 2012, Blair County’s numbers have improved, going from 72.16 percent in 2011 to 76.16 in 2012.

Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio said the booking center’s opening at the Blair County Prison likely has had a lot to do with the increase in fingerprint orders, although it’s difficult to say just how much of an impact the booking center has had and whether other factors have affected the numbers.

Consiglio said before the booking center, arranging fingerprinting for defendants who are not jailed could prove difficult for defendants outside the city of Altoona because their only option was to go to the state police in Hollidaysburg.

Defendants can make an appointment and take their fingerprint order to the booking center throughout the week, with fingerprinting available in the evenings, noted booking center Officer Brian Kuhn.

“We open at 9:30 a.m. to the public until 2 p.m., then we shut down and are open from 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.,” Kuhn said.

Still, there is no clear system in place to ensure a defendant follows through with a fingerprint order, but Merwine said it is ultimately the arresting agency’s responsibility.

State Police Trooper David McGarvey, spokesman for Troop G in Hollidaysburg, said it’s policy that a trooper can’t close out a report until the defendant has been fingerprinted, and according to the commission’s numbers, the state police rate statewide is about 88 percent. The state police, like Altoona police, also have their own fingerprint scanner, which captures prints electronically and sends them to the state’s central repository at the state police headquarters in Harrisburg.

Merwine said varying rates among departments and counties can’t really be traced to any one reason, and said ultimately it’s the attitude of local departments that usually determines whether a department has a high or low fingerprint rate. Some departments still use ink and cards, which then have to be sent in by mail and are often rejected if the quality isn’t sufficient, while other departments have smaller forces, and it just falls through the cracks.

Philadelphia County has a 99 percent compliance rate, something Merwine noted stems from a multi-tiered system where the case doesn’t go forward without fingerprinting, including the police practice of not filing a criminal complaint unless they have fingerprinting completed, or whether it’s the judges who won’t hear the case until the defendant has been fingerprinted.

The underlying concern, Merwine said, is safety.

“It’s a public safety and officer safety issue, as well,” Merwine said.