Fingerprint scans raise worries

Police say they won't be kept

Staff WriterDecember 8, 2010 

— Next month, 13 law enforcement agencies in the region will begin using a new handheld device that lets an officer scan a person's fingerprints and seek a match in an electronic database - all without going anywhere.

Police say taking fingerprints in the field will allow them to work more efficiently and safely. But the ACLU North Carolina in Raleigh worries that the device may allow officers to violate privacy rights.

The ACLU is concerned about what will become of fingerprint scans that are sent to other databases, such as the National Crime Information Center.

"Part of the danger is the idea of the government creating a database on its citizens," said Sarah Preston, policy director for ACLU North Carolina. "Citizens should be allowed some degree of privacy."

But those concerns are unwarranted, said Sam Pennica, director of the City-County Bureau of Identification, the agency that processes fingerprints in Wake County and is providing the devices to local agencies. The software for the device, known as Rapid Identification COPS Technology, would not store fingerprints of any individuals, even those charged with a crime, Pennica said.

"It will not retain the fingerprints of any individuals under any circumstances," he said, adding that fingerprints would only be compared to those in the Wake County database. "They will not be submitted to any state or federal agency."

ACLU North Carolina has asked CCBI for copies of its policies governing use of the device. The organization made a similar request to the Charlotte Police Department last month, after it announced a pilot program to determine the effectiveness of Rapid ID.

"Mainly, we are looking for protocols on how it's going to be used on the streets," Preston said.

Pennica said he would send ACLU North Carolina a packet this week, outlining how, and under what circumstances, the device will be used by law officers. He noted that state law does not allow officers to coerce or threaten a person with arrest for refusing to submit to a fingerprint scan.

CCBI plans to distribute 120 of the devices to 13 law agencies throughout the region, including Raleigh police and the Wake County Sheriff's Office, at the beginning of the year.

"The agencies have to sign an agreement saying under what circumstances they can use the device, and they will," Pennica said.

Preston said even with the legal protections in place, the ACLU is concerned that a person may produce identification and still be asked for fingerprints, or that an officer may try to obtain fingerprints from anyone under suspicion.

"It could be used to profile Latinos because a law enforcement officer may not believe they have a valid driver's license," Preston said.

ACLU North Carolina expressed similar concerns earlier this year when state law officials, including Attorney General Roy Cooper, supported a bill that would allow the police to obtain DNA samples from anyone charged with a violent felony. Cooper estimated that the collection of DNA at the time of arrest would enable law enforcement agencies across the state to solve at least 100 previously unsolved cases in the first year.

Preston described the measure as "an end-run around constitutional protections."

The state legislature passed that bill last summer, and Gov. Bev Perdue signed it into law.

News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

thomasi.mcdonald@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4533

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