Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Forget the Ink

Earlier this month, the Sarasota County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office became one of the first law enforcement agencies to put into the field a new hand-held device that can scan fingerprints on the spot and give an officer a quick report on the person.

Using forfeiture funds, the Sheriff's Office purchased 14 PrintSearch Mobile systems, which allow for quick, positive identification of individuals in local and state databases, and in the FBI Repository for Individuals of Special Concern (RISC). Unlike most statewide fingerprint systems which must be done at the jail and can take hours to return results, this system provides positive identification in a matter of seconds while still in the field.

The device has been key to several Sarasota County arrests already, including that of a man who was a criminal alien deported from the United States three months earlier, but who had re-entered the country. The man’s prior history included aggravated assault with a firearm, the sheriff’s office said.

Predictably enough, advocates for privacy rights have raised questions, particularly regarding the collection of fingerprints not already in the databases. But according to the sheriff’s office, the devices are being used only for identification and only where there exists a question as to the true identity of an individual. None of the scanned fingerprints are being stored in local, state, or national databases, according to a spokesperson.

Someone who has a valid driver’s license "is never going to see this device on the road," Sheriff Tom Knight has said. Still, the ACLU has expressed concerns.

Knight’s office is using the PrintScan Mobile as well as a license plate scanning system as part of an effort to be more efficient with fewer officers. The agency, like so many nationwide, is operating with fewer deputies due to budget cuts. The implementation of the PrintScan Mobile is part of a process that the Sheriff anticipates will lead to the use of a book and release function for misdemeanors requiring only a Notice to Appear, eliminating the trip to jail altogether and keeping the deputy on the street.