Does the FBI have your fingerprints?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 22 2005 6:38 PM

Does the FBI Have Your Fingerprints?

Find out for 18 bucks.

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Look familiar?

Anna Ayala, the woman who found a finger in a bowl of Wendy's chili last month, was arrested on Thursday and charged with grand larceny and attempted grand larceny. Police have not been able to determine the origin of the finger, even after searching for matches in "the F.B.I.'s database of about 50 million prints." Who's in the FBI database?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Criminals, suspected criminals, government employees, military personnel, and a few others. The repository has three components: A criminal file, a civil file, and a military file. The criminal file is the biggest and comprises the 50 or so million entries that get searched when police are trying to identify a print left at a crime scene. The civil file, not surprisingly, includes government employees, and the military file covers the armed forces.

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Local and federal law enforcement officers typically submit fingerprints to the FBI's criminal file for every person they arrest on a serious charge, whether or not there is an eventual conviction. (The print from the chili finger is not in the database; as a result of her arrest on Thursday, Ayala's own fingerprints are.) The fingerprints of all FBI employees and some other sensitive government employees are also kept in the criminal file—the government wants to know ASAP if these people commit crimes—as are the prints of missing persons, amnesiacs who don't remember their names, and unidentified dead bodies. The FBI says it adds seven or eight thousand entries to the criminal file every day.

If a suspected criminal is found to be not guilty, his or her prints are supposed to be removed from the system, but that doesn't always happen. You can also petition to have your prints removed if you received an official pardon for your crime or if the laws governing the severity of your crime have changed since your arrest.

Dead people are removed from the database when their data is submitted to the FBI by a coroner's office. It used to be that anyone over the age of 65 who hadn't been arrested or imprisoned in 10 years was assumed to be dead or not an active criminal and removed from the file. In more recent years the age limit has been increased.

Law enforcement officials use the criminal file for the identification of crime-scene prints, as well as for criminal background checks. But there are also a number of federal and state laws that permit civilians to consult the database with the help of a state agency in special circumstances. The National Child Protection Act, for example, allows anyone who works with children to be fingerprinted and checked against the criminal file. Licensed stock brokers, bankers, and gambling-casino employees can all be checked by their employers as well. In recent years, the number of these background checks has increased dramatically; today civil searches account for almost half of all submissions to the bureau.

How do you know if you're in the FBI database? According to Department of Justice rules, you have the right to submit your own fingerprints for a background check on yourself. (This allows you to contest anything that might be on your rap sheet.) Just write out a formal request and send it to the FBI, along with a full set of fingerprints and a money order for $18.

Explainer thanks Ken Moses of Forensic Identification Services and Peter Higgins of the Higgins-Hermansen Group.