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Ballistic Fingerprinting Reopens Unsolved Crimes

As of October 2016, police have recovered 7,224 guns in the city of Chicago. That's up 21% from the same period last year and highlights the quantity of guns in circulation on Chicago streets. Many of these recovered firearms have violent histories, and police are now using a technique called ballistic fingerprinting to match these recovered firearms to past crimes.

The Basics of Ballistic Fingerprinting

The science behind ballistic fingerprinting is quite simple. When a bullet is fired from any weapon, the weapon leaves a set of unique impressions on the fired bullet as it travels down the barrel. These impressions are unique to every firearm in circulation, making it possible for authorities to match bullets and shell casings recovered at crime scenes with recently recovered firearms. When a match is found, authorities can investigate whether the person in possession of the firearm is a suspect in the previous crime, or purchased the firearm from a potential suspect.

The process of testing and matching firearms is becoming more complex and has been significantly aided by the development of the National Integrated Ballistic Information System or NIBIN. This database is maintained by the ATF and provides law enforcement officials with a library of recovered bullets and shell casings from crime scenes. When a new firearm is recovered, authorities compare the ballistic fingerprint from the weapon to this library of evidence.

This system has been in place since the early 1990s; however, technological advancements have significantly increased the efficiency with which a firearm can be analyzed. In the early days of the system, investigators would have to manually compare ballistic fingerprints using microfilm or a microscope. This process was extremely time intensive and was a significant drain on law enforcement resources. With advancements in computer technology, the process has been significantly automated, and computer software now does the majority of grunt work when comparing recovered firearm fingerprints and this library of crime scene evidence.

Ballistic Fingerprinting in Chicago

Recently, ballistic fingerprinting has made Chicago news in several high-profile cases—one such case being the apprehension of 26-year-old Demond Coffee. During a 2015 law enforcement chase on foot, police allege that Coffee threw a loaded Glock 9mm pistol into an abandoned lot before being apprehended. An NIBIN test indicated that the weapon was stolen in Indianapolis before being used in the killing of a 7-year-old in July 2015 and the wounding of a 15-year-old in August 2015. While Coffee had yet to be implicated in either killing, the alleged use of this weapon in both crimes provided authorities with a lead in both cases.

Flaws in the System

It stands without question that progress has been made in the development and accuracy of ballistic fingerprinting techniques. However, critics point to a flawed system which diverts law enforcement resources away from more effective crime fighting measures. In Maryland, 15 years and more than $5 million dollars were for naught after the system failed to increase accuracy or efficiency. Eventually, lawmakers elected to discontinue the state’s ballistic fingerprinting database.

Beginning in 2000, the state mandated that every firearm sold in Maryland be fired and cataloged prior to sale. The thought was to record the ballistic fingerprint of a firearm before it was used in a crime to more quickly and efficiently identify the owner after was the crime committed. To this end, the state stamped more than 300,000 bullet casings with a unique barcode before being entered into the statewide system.

Technological shortcomings were the major cause of the failure of Maryland's system, as the software responsible for matching bullets and shell casings would frequently return hundreds of potential matches—a number difficult and time-consuming to narrow down. Law enforcement officials once again found themselves in the position of manually reviewing and comparing of ballistic fingerprints, fishing for matches like a needle in a haystack.

Looking Forward

While the Maryland experiment was clearly a failure, the expectation is for ballistic fingerprinting to become commonplace in police investigations in the coming years. This is especially true in Chicago, which continues to battle a murder epidemic primarily driven by firearm usage. The city recently surpassed 600 murders in 2016, with a staggering 2,100 people wounded by firearms. As law enforcement officials continue their attempts to curb this gun-driven violence, it is likely that ballistic fingerprinting will maintain its high-priority forensic status. For the citizens of Chicago, it is important that state and local governments use this technology in a way which respects the rights of the accused to a fair trial consisting of reliable crime scene evidence.

Weighing in on this balance, criminal defense attorney Michael Schmiege said, “With any new law enforcement technology, there exists the potential to make American cities safer by apprehending criminals with greater effectiveness. With that said, new capabilities carry with them the need for accountability. We have a responsibility to ensure that any evidence such technology might provide is reliable and can stand up to scientific scrutiny in a court of law. As a criminal defense attorney, it’s my job to safeguard the accused against any questionable evidence, so the judge and jury can make decisions based on facts, not emotions. The fact here is we can’t yet guarantee ballistic fingerprinting is always accurate—and we can’t set a precedent that puts innocents behind bars for mismanaged forensics.”

While the advancements in ballistic fingerprinting are a net positive for law enforcement, the great need for upholding the rights of all citizens—including those accused of crimes—warrants a careful look at tech reliability. Mr. Schmiege understands the anxieties and needs of individuals accused of involvement in a gun related crime. He works tirelessly, defending Chicagoans in the courtroom.

If you have been accused or are concerned about an upcoming gun-related legal case, contact the law offices of Michael Schmiege right away. Mr. Schmiege has the experience, dedication, and a proven track record of success in protecting you and your rights. Don’t face your trials alone—you deserve Mr. Schmiege in your corner.

405 N. Wabash Ave., Suite P2C, Chicago, IL 60611
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Law Offices of Michael P. Schmiege - Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney
Located at 53 West Jackson Blvd., #1515 Chicago, IL 60604. View Map
Phone: (312) 626-2400