Florida, FBI tap new fingerprint technology to ID suspects using fake names

Two years after the death of Fort Myers Police Officer Andrew Widman, advances in fingerprint technology continue to shed light on suspects otherwise difficult to identify. Here, Mary Christofano of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement demonstrates a fingerprint livescan, which searches a suspects prints against state and national databases. Steven Beardsley/Staff

Photo by STEVEN BEARDSLEY // Buy this photo

Two years after the death of Fort Myers Police Officer Andrew Widman, advances in fingerprint technology continue to shed light on suspects otherwise difficult to identify. Here, Mary Christofano of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement demonstrates a fingerprint livescan, which searches a suspects prints against state and national databases. Steven Beardsley/Staff

— Nurija Kolenovic’s case triggered alarms when she appeared before a judge in February.

Detectives said the 27-year-old from Queens, N.Y., tried buying a $30,000 Rolex with a fake credit card and a counterfeit driver license. Things were going smoothly until a jewelry clerk phoned the credit card company.

The fakes were high-quality — American Express had approved the purchase, and the license had a valid number that registered back to a man in New Jersey. Whoever drove Kolenovic to the jewelry store was gone by the time officers arrived.

“The fact pattern here certainly raises the spectre of organized crime...,” Collier County Judge Mike Carr remarked at a hearing for Kolenovic.

He set a high bond — $110,000 on five counts — and asked deputies to run Kolenovic’s fingerprints nationally. Nothing came back, but Carr left her bond unchanged. Under the Collier County jail’s procedures, the national check would have been done anyway.

Kolenovic’s case reflects the criminal justice system’s concern about the ease with which suspects can cross state boundaries and assume new identities, even though she didn’t do that.

Many suspects treat names like garments, easily shed when dirty and exchanged for something cleaner.

In the past two years, the state has expanded the volume of its fingerprint database tenfold, installed a more sensitive scanning system in jails and outfitted Collier deputies with handheld scanners that can be used roadside.

Meanwhile, through advances in technology, in the next two years the FBI should be able to search its 84 million fingerprints in 10 minutes. It now takes as long as two hours.

Yet, the consequences of an incomplete background check were seen two years ago Sunday, when Fort Myers Police Officer Andrew Widman was shot to death by a man who could have been in jail. His killer was on probation when arrested on a drug charge, but a first appearance judge never knew it.

Widman’s widow, Susanna, recently told reporters that criminals “are falling through the cracks of the judicial system.”

Today, local, state and national authorities are turning to fingerprint technology to close those gaps.

In the past two years, the state has expanded the volume of its fingerprint database tenfold, installed a more sensitive scanning system in jails and outfitted Collier deputies with handheld scanners that can be used roadside.

Meanwhile, through advances in technology, in the next two years the FBI should be able to search its 84 million fingerprints in 10 minutes. It now takes as long as two hours.

The advances rest on a simple law enforcement dictum, said Scott Barnett, director of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s bureau for technical services: “Anything that is name-based is not reliable.”

* * * * *

It’s not CSI, yet.

Not long ago, fingertips were inked and pressed against cards, which then were faxed to FDLE and the FBI. Results took hours, if not days, as experts pored over swirls and whorls.

Today, identification in Florida takes minutes, and the process is much cleaner. Detainees booked into any of Florida’s jails will have their fingerprints scanned. In the Collier and Lee jails, an ATM-size machine shows the prints on the screen, grades their quality for the booking officer and then sends them to the state.

Andrew Widman

Andrew Widman

From there, a database at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement needs about 10 minutes to search for matching fingerprints and a criminal record. If no match is found, the agency forwards the fingerprints to the FBI for the same search.

If a match still isn’t found, the state creates a new record and sends a copy to the FBI. Kolenovic, for example, didn’t have a record in state or national databases when arrested, but she should now.

Florida has led the way with its use of fingerprint technology, said Charlie Schaeffer, project manager for the FDLE system. The state is one of 14 in the nation with its own database.

By mid-2009, every jail in Florida had upgraded to the agency’s Biometric ID System, a more sophisticated version of the state’s older system. The new system can hold 25 million prints, up from 2.5 million prints.

The new system scans a wider variety of prints, including palm prints and the ‘writer’s palm,’ or side of the hand. It also retains fingerprints from every arrest in a suspect’s history and creates a composite of the best scans.

“There was a leap in technology but also a significant leap in the research that occurred,” Schaeffer said.

The database is populating rapidly, and the results are paying off, FDLE reports. In the first six months of the Biometric ID System, the agency recorded 5,000 hits from new prints entering the system, as well as a tripling of the number of hits to older fingerprints submitted into the system from older, unsolved crimes.

The FBI is gaining ground. By the end of 2011, the agency expects the newest version of its database to be as fast as Florida’s system, returning a response within 15 minutes.

Before 1999, the agency needed weeks, and sometimes months, to return a search.

Now it hopes more agencies will turn first to the FBI database, said Stephen Fischer, with the agency’s Criminal Justice Information Services.

“We can turn around prints in minutes, so we’re out there selling it,” he said.

* * * * *

The advent of bigger, faster databases means agencies can do more with fingerprints than ever before.

In the near future, an officer may scan your fingerprints as he issues a speeding citation. Fail to pay it and fail to appear in court, and the bench warrant will be released in your name and in your fingerprints.

Collier deputies are experimenting with Rapid ID, a hand-held two-finger scanner that searches the FDLE database in seconds. The devices are ideal for roadside traffic stops and situations when someone doesn’t have an ID.

The scanners aren’t being used for common citations, but they could be, Barnett said. The searches could be tied to the FBI database, as well, he said.

Rapid ID scans also can clear someone’s name before a trip to the jail.

Collier deputies say suspects sometimes use a friend’s or relative’s name during their first arrest. When a warrant is later issued in the same name, complications arise.

Two years after the death of Fort Myers Police Officer Andrew Widman, advances in fingerprint technology continue to shed light on suspects otherwise difficult to identify. Here, Mary Christofano of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement demonstrates a fingerprint livescan, which searches a suspects prints against state and national databases.  Steven Beardsley/Staff

Photo by STEVEN BEARDSLEY // Buy this photo

Two years after the death of Fort Myers Police Officer Andrew Widman, advances in fingerprint technology continue to shed light on suspects otherwise difficult to identify. Here, Mary Christofano of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement demonstrates a fingerprint livescan, which searches a suspects prints against state and national databases. Steven Beardsley/Staff

With Rapid ID, the innocent person can be cleared at the roadway, instead of being hauled off to jail.

“It benefits the innocent people that are getting victimized, and it helps clean up the records we’re putting together on the criminals,” Barnett said.

The agency has been aggressive in pursuing fingerprint technology, buying its own database with Lee County in 1994 for $1.5 million.

With their own system, detectives can enter latents and search fingerprints that normally wouldn’t be accepted by the state and federal databases. They can also refine or expand their searches more easily, given the smaller size of the population.

“It gives us a lot more latitude to do investigative searches,” Barnett said.

* * * * *

The systems aren’t foolproof.

People who work with their hands damage their fingerprints over time, making them difficult to read. Twins can cause problems.

And, as with any technology, human error leads to another set of problems.

One such error came in 2008, when a man named Terrance Christian was released from the Collier County jail in Naples while on probation.

Christian initially said he was a juvenile and was booked into the Juvenile Assessment Center. When it was discovered he was an adult, he gave his brother’s name, Bryon Reddick, a name he had given at the adult jail during a previous arrest.

Terrance Christian CCSO

Terrance Christian CCSO

The jail took him to be Reddick, and because the Juvenile Assessment Center made the original fingerprint scan, their results returned with a “juvenile” label, prompting a jail booking officer to ignore them and he bonded out.

“It was a hole that just happened,” Barnett said.

Booking officers now are required to look at all reports.

Collier County authorities firmly believe in the emerging technology.

Schaeffer, in turn, sees the state’s progress having an influence on the federal government. Where agencies once believed fingerprints were used only for arrests and crime scenes, Florida is letting its agencies push in new directions.

“We tend to be a little more progressive,” he said. “We’re wanting to use the ability to ID people, we want to use the technology to help the officer on the street, to help the citizen build a better community in Florida.”

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