This case involves a discovery issue. A residential burglary occurred on December 6, 1988 and jewelry valued at over $12,000 was stolen. At the scene police recovered sixteen latent fingerprints from various jewelry boxes, but were unable to match them with any known fingerprints.
In May, 1990 the New Jersey State Police installed an Automated Fingerprint Information System (hereafter AFIS) which permits latent fingerprints to be electronically compared by a computer with a large data base consisting of over 900,000 sets of known fingerprints of persons previously involved with the criminal Justice system. Sometime in 1991 the sixteen latent
fingerprints were submitted for AFIS analysis and the computer identified the defendant as having fingerprints that were similar to the latents. The AFIS operator sent his name to the Somerset County Sheriff's Office where a fingerprint expert manually compared the latent fingerprints with those of the defendant. It is his opinion that twelve of the latent fingerprints found at the crime scene are those of the defendant. There is no other evidence to implicate the defendant.
R. 3:13-3(a)(4) permits a defendant to inspect and copy "any relevant . . . scientific tests or experiments made in connection with the matter" and R. 3:13-3(a)(7) requires the State to provide the defendant with the names and addresses of all witnesses who have relevant information. The issue in this case is whether the State should be compelled to provide the defendant with all information entered into and produced by AFIS, and the name and curriculum vitae of the AFIS operator.
The State contends that this information is irrelevant because no evidence will be offered at the trial concerning the use or operation of AFIS. The evidence which will be produced at the trial will be the expert opinion of the fingerprint expert from the Sheriff's Office, not the opinion of the AFIS operator or the AFIS printouts. The defendant contends that the information he seeks is relevant because information entered into and produced by AFIS could reveal whether other persons were identified as having fingerprints that were similar to the latents. If so, he wants his expert to examine their fingerprints to determine whether they are similar to any of the latent fingerprints. Defendant contends that this is Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S. Ct. 1194, 10 L. Ed. 2d 215 (1963) material which he is entitled to examine because it may provide him with exculpatory evidence which may deflect suspicion to others. The importance of this evidence is clear because fingerprint comparisons are "a very certain means devised by modern science" to identify persons who committed crimes, United States v. Kelly, 55 F.2d 67, 69 (2 Cir.1932); Roesch v. Ferber,
Before this issue can be adequately analyzed, an understanding of the AFIS system is necessary. Prior to this technology, fingerprints could be identified only by comparing them manually with a known fingerprint. And, of course, if the fingerprint examiner was not given the fingerprint of a specific person, an identification could not be made. If a match was not made, the latent fingerprints were placed into an "unsolved latent" file in the hope that eventually a suspect could be identified whose fingerprints could be compared with the latents.
However, with the advent of AFIS, latent fingerprints can now be electronically and, especially important, quickly compared with over 900,000 sets of known fingerprints. A comparison can be made for each latent fingerprint in about twenty minutes. When latent fingerprints are entered into the AFIS computer they are scanned and digitalized by the computer. This digitalization is used to create a spatial map of the ridge pattern of the fingerprints. The computer then translates these patterns into a binary code so that a searching algorithm can be employed. The computer then compares the latent's binary code to the known fingerprints already in the computer's data base. If the latents ...