STUDY: More than 670K offenses unfiled because of missing fingerprints

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RICHMOND, Va. — A study by the Virginia State Crime Commission found a criminal history records database is missing more than 670,000 entries for offenses. 

The cause? Missing fingerprints. 

“The magnitude of the issue I think was somewhat surprising,” Nathan Hittle, the Virginia State Crime Commission’s attorney said during the presentation Friday. 

Hittle explains the fingerprints were supposed to be collected during the court proceedings and then given to Virginia State Police to put in criminal history records – also known as the Central Crime Records Exchange (CCRE). Because these offenses do not have complete information with them, they have been put in “hold files.” 

More than 750,00 offenses not applied to criminal history records due to errors. Ninety percent of them, more than 670,000, are because of a lack of fingerprints. The other ten are because of other errors. 

“The biggest reason that we found with the conversation with stakeholders has to do with a misunderstanding of statutory requirements with summonses, direct indictments, probation violations, capiases and showcases,” he explained. “When you have multiple charges as well each charge has to have a set of fingerprints and law enforcement and courts are sometimes only capturing one to go with one charge.”

There’s also a lack of personnel to capture fingerprints. Hittle says the juvenile process is also different than the adult process, which can “cause confusion and that can cause confusion among law enforcement and clerks.”  

These incomplete entries date back to the mid 1990’s, when state police switched over from paper to a digital database, officials say. State police also send letters to various agencies when they receive files with incomplete fingerprints, but sometimes those agencies don’t return with the updated information. 

VSCC vice-chair Sen. Mark Obenshain said the volume of these incomplete files “certainly sounds like a huge issue.” 

Out of the incomplete entries, 65 percent of them are misdemeanors and 35 percent are felonies. 

“For felonies, 56 percent of the dispositions were for a guilty disposition,” Hittle said. “‘VCC categories for potential concern include 318 convictions for murder and homicide, over 1,300 convictions in the rape category under the VCC Code over 2,500 robbery convictions.” 

Attorney Bill Shields was surprised by the number of these offenses “where we are dealing with bad people” that failed to be logged in the system.

“This is more a law enforcement issue than anything else because prosecutors and police want to know the background of the people they’re arresting,” he explained. “It could have effect for example in drunk driving cases, if it’s a second or third offense it is a more serious offense and it has a more serious penalty.”

These criminal history files are also used by employers for background checks. They’re also run when someone tries to purchase a firearm. 

“If the fingerprints don’t match properly you have a very real danger of someone buying a firearm that’s not supposed to be able to buy them,” Shields added.

There are other safeguards in the background check system for firearms. Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller says when someone’s information is run through the database, charges will show up. If there isn’t a final disposition or court decision made on those charges, authorities will call the courts to see if any more information could be provided about the offense. 

Virginia State Police is aware of the issue. In a statement, State Police says the “study reflects the reality that criminal history records, like all records, are only as good as the data inputs… The resulting data has greatly assisted us with identifying the source, depth and progressive solutions to the problem. State police is currently participating in a statewide work group, led by the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, that is identifying those solutions. We look forward to working with Virginia’s 400 law enforcement agencies and court systems to reconcile the issue.” 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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