State's high-tech system for fingerprinting feted BALTIMORE COUNTY

January 13, 1993|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Having fingered their 500th suspect, Maryland's high-tech fingerprinting gurus celebrated yesterday and said their "star wars" technology will keep criminals from hiding behind phony names.

"The day of the alias is over," declared Paul E. Leuba, director of data services for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In its first year, the identification system, known as MAFIS, or Maryland Automated Fingerprint Identification System, fingered more than 20,000 newly arrested suspects whose criminal records could not be found by using their names, said department spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr.

In addition to linking newly arrested people to their past crimes, the system searched the files, found 5,000 offenders with multiple files under various names, and gave them a single number that will, as Mr. Sipes said, "follow them from cradle to grave."

The system also checks the fingerprints of applicants for jobs in child care, banking, nuclear power and law enforcement and looks for those with criminal records under other names.

The system has linked the fingerprints of 500 suspects to 554 cases, including homicides, rapes and robberies, said Mr. Sipes. In one case, a print left in the armed robbery of a Southern Maryland jewelry store matched prints in 10 other robberies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

In another case, the rapist of an elderly Howard County woman was caught by a single fingerprint on the light bulb he unscrewed.

At state police headquarters in Pikesville, fingerprint technicians Marcine Parrish and Rodney Jones enter new sets of fingerprints. Using a computer graphics workstation, they mark the characteristic slants, loops, whorls, arches, deltas and other features that make each fingerprint as unique as a snowflake.

"We get five, six hundred cards [of fingerprints] a day," said Mr. Jones, who spent 11 years with the FBI before he signed on with the state.

(One million sets of prints are in the state system.)

The prints are then checked against existing files. A "hit" means the individual already has an identification number, assigned through a previous contact with the criminal justice system, said technician Darlene Dunn.

The number is more than bureaucratic file keeping. It can help prevent the kind of mistaken releases of criminals that have led to personal tragedies and political embarrassment in the past, Mr. Sipes said.

And the system "solves crimes while you sleep," said Louis C. "Doc" Portis, director of the state police crime lab. Each day's new fingerprints are automatically compared overnight to a data base of unidentified fingerprints from crime scenes. These are often partial prints, so the computer may generate a variety of suspects. "I can wake up the next day and may have 20 to 50 candidates," Dr. Portis said. The list of suspects is relayed to investigators.

And since the Baltimore City Detention Center installed a fingerprint reader that compares a departing inmate's fingerprint with those on file, there have been no more embarrassing releases of the wrong prisoner.

The new technology promises more changes, officials said:

* Replacement of the old fingerprint ink pads -- and the resulting badly smudged prints -- with clean glass plates and direct photo scanning of prints. Fingerprints can be checked and retaken immediately if necessary.

* The opening of a state-of-the-art fingerprint center by the FBI in 1995 that will create a nationwide central fingerprint file, something television detectives have had for decades.

* A fingerprint reader that can be used in police cars to identify suspects on the spot.

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