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Fingerprint Examiner Has Qualified Immunity

Although a police fingerprint examiner erred in matching fingerprints at the scene of a Fredericksburg burglary to prints at a Smith Mountain Lake vacation home that had been burgled, a Franklin County investigator reasonably relied on the detective’s assessment to have plaintiff arrested, and the examiner was not reckless in failing to have his analysis independently verified; the Roanoke U.S. District Court says both law enforcement officers have qualified immunity from plaintiff’s false arrest suit.

Defendants are Patrick Lamb, a Fredericksburg Police Department detective and fingerprint examiner, and Gary Shively, an investigator for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office who took fingerprints from the Smith Mountain Lake vacation home. No party now disputes that plaintiff did not commit either the Franklin County or the Fredericksburg burglary or the fact that Lamb incorrectly matched plaintiff’s prints to the Fredericksburg latent prints.

Plainly, Shively had probable cause when he sought warrants for plaintiff’s arrest. He was told by Lamb, a fingerprint examiner, that there was a match between the prints recovered from the two crime scenes. He then canvassed businesses in the area of the Franklin County burglary, asking for a person with the name “Ryan” who matched the physical description provided by the Fredericksburg victim. A citizen tipster provided him with the name of Andre Lucas, the father of plaintiff Ryan Lucas. Shively sent Lucas’ known fingerprints to Lamb, and was then informed by Lamb that Lucas’ known prints matched the latent prints from the Fredericksburg burglary. Certainly, at that point in time, Shively had sufficient inculpatory information to meet the probable cause standard. Lucas’ Sheriff’s office file and DMV records indicated Lucas, at least at some point, lived near the scene of the Franklin County burglary. Lucas generally matched the physical description provided by the Fredericksburg victims. Most critically, Shively had information forensically linking Lucas to both crime scenes. The evidence at the time thus provided a fair probability that Lucas had committed the Franklin County burglary, and Shively was entitled to seek out warrants.

Shively’s reliance on Lamb’s statements about matching prints was reasonable. Non-fingerprint examiners must be able to rely on the representation of experts in the field; otherwise, non-examiners would never be able to use fingerprint analysis in their probable cause determinations. An officer does not need to rely on a foolproof source of forensic evidence in order to meet the probable cause standard.

Further, even assuming the sheriff’s office had some protocol requiring the use of forensic evidence provided by a laboratory examination of the fingerprints, the violation of internal protocols cannot be contorted into a constitutional violation or lack of probable cause. Shively was not required to wait for the lab’s analysis to meet the probable cause standard. Nor did the weight variation between plaintiff’s weight listed in DMV records and the description given by the victim of the Fredericksburg burglary defeat probable cause.

To support probable cause, Shively had the forensic link between plaintiff and the crimes scenes, and the general physical description – sex, race, height, hair color – matched. Once defendants realized the most significant physical characteristic of the suspect, the full sleeve tattoos, did not match plaintiff, defendants promptly began to acquire other exculpatory evidence leading to the prompt dismissal of all charges.

Plaintiff also has argued that because Lamb failed to have another fingerprint examiner verify his conclusion, herecklessly disregarded the verification procedures of the ACE-V (analysis, comparison, evaluation and verification) methodology that make fingerprint analysis reliable. The court ordered supplemental briefing on this issue. Given that the 4th Circuit has affirmed that an unverified fingerprint analysis meets the basic threshold for scientific reliability, this court cannot hold that Lamb acted with a reckless disregard for the truth in averring that plaintiff was forensically linked to the crime scene based on the fact that his analysis had not been independently verified.

Summary judgment for defendants.

Lucas v. Shively (Urbanski) No. 7:13cv055, July 7, 2014; USDC at Roanoke, Va. VLW 014-3-349, 29 pp.

VLW 014-3-349

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