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Fingerprinting Air

"Even where the criminal makes no attempt to efface the prints of his fingers, but leaves them all over the scene of the crime, the chances are about one in ten of finding a print that is sufficiently clear to be of any value."
Dashiell Hammett, "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective"

In fictionland, you can get a fingerprint off of anything, including human skin. Most of the time, you'll get a complete print suitable for analysis. If you get a partial, odds are that it's still good enough for analysis. You can also get a sample good enough for identification by fingerprinting a heavily decomposed corpse. Everyone in the world has their fingerprints on file, so an AFIS search is always going to come back with something (but then, it is an Omniscient Database). No one even takes the precaution of wearing gloves, which is a common practice among criminals, although it is sometimes possible to leave a fingerprint impression through thin gloves. The AFIS match is always conclusive.

In the real world, an examiner looks at a list of possible matches generated from the database — computer pattern matching is much more basic and can contain lots of false positives. Also, mistakes are possible, albeit rare. In 2005, three experienced FBI examiners mis-identified Brandon Mayfield as a suspect in the Madrid Bombings. A fourth expert hired by the court went along with the results. The mistake later came to light when the Spanish authorities disagreed with the result.

Fingerprinting in the real world is not quite so easy, but there are one or two places where the shows catch a break. CSI benefits from being set in Las Vegas, where the largest employers (the casinos) require employees to register with the gaming commission. The use of superglue fumes to process latent fingerprints is, surprisingly, quite real. While not quite so miraculous as it appears on TV, it certainly must have seemed that way when it was first discovered. Incidentally, it replaced the older Ninhydrin process after the chemicals used in that process were discovered to cause cancer.

Fingerprinting also tends to be so common in fiction that lack of fingerprints is taken as evidence of someone interfering with evidence. No one ever lacks fingerprints unless they're a criminal, everyone has a full set of prints, no one gets one burnt off by accident. (In real life, usually the exact opposite is true: Fingerprinting experts are often brought in to testify that usable fingerprints are usually not found at a crime scene.)

DNA works the same way as fingerprints. Anything the perp has licked, touched, or sweat on can incriminate them. In real life, suitable DNA for comparison is harder to get, comparisons takes days, not minutes, and the percentage of people listed in CODIS is very small indeed. Until the past few years, DNA comparisons were impossible without a very large sample, and the technology to compare small samples is still of limited availability.

On the other hand, if it's not the kind of show where science saves the day, the best crime scene team in the world isn't going to find a single print. Columbo, in 35 years, only had three cases broken by fingerprints. (In one, it was prints on the insides of gloves. One where the gun used was wiped of prints but not the bullets.)

The trope name comes from an exchange on CSI. A detective asks Warrick if he can pull a print from some object, and he exaggerates, "I can pull a fingerprint off the air."

Compare Bat Deduction and Scarily Competent Tracker, which are similar examples of coming to correct conclusions based on extremely obtuse evidence.


Examples:

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    Film 
  • In The Dark Knight, Batman is able to get fingerprints from a bullet by removing the piece of wall in which it had hit and using a computer program to reassemble the bullet, and get a fingerprint from THAT. Never mind that the fragments would probably be warped, or that the impact and friction would have utterly destroyed any semblance of a fingerprint, Batman is just that goddamn awesome.
  • In Fast Five Tej is able to lift a full hand print off of a bikini, and it good enough to get through a high end scanner.

    Literature 
  • In the book The Final Chapter, Officer Denis takes a fingerprint from a piece of string. A fingerprint that was left five years ago. On a piece of string that was holding together a stack of notebooks. Notebooks which, during those five years, got soaked so bad the writing in them has become completely illegible.
  • The murderer protagonist in the Ray Bradbury short story "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl" took this trope too much to heart; the police catch him while he's compulsively scrubbing the entire house in fear of what he may or may not have touched. Famously adapted for EC Comics' Crime SuspensStories with the more ironic title "Touch and Go!"
  • In the Dean Koontz novel Dark Rivers of the Heart, the main character Spencer Grant walks through heavy rain and gets his hands soaked. He then wipes off his hands and opens a window which is also covered with flowing water. Unfortunately for him, the Government Agencyof Fiction has secret super advanced computers and other cutting edge technology; after a few failed attempts they eventually recover dozens of perfect, pristine prints.

    Live Action TV 
  • CSI:
    • Was able to pull DNA from a fingerprint. In "For Warrick", Ecklie notes that no one has ever pulled a successful print off an object as small as the one in question (a small-caliber bullet), and all the team members look at each other as if to say "A challenge!"
    • Warrick himself once boasted that he could get a fingerprint from air.
    • They subverted this in one episode - a cleanly lifted print in an old case is shown to be fabricated because there was no way that it could have been lifted from the surface claimed (an alligator-skin wallet).
  • CSI NY had one episode where the print was pulled from the victim's skin by degloving the hands and putting the fingertip skin over the investigator's finger like a glove. This is another thing that actually is sometimes used in real life.
  • In The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.., the titular character invents fingerprinting. He was able to lift a clean print off of a shell still in the chamber of a Derringer, but the odd thing is that he got a completely identical print from another object.
  • House was caught for flooding a part of the hospital from fingerprints lifted off the pieces of paper he shoved into a drain. Because wet paper scraps retain fingerprints, apparently.

    Video Games 

  • In Persona 4 the police are able to get prints off of cloth, Adachi is amazed at it.
    Adachi: Man, isn't crime scene investigation something? Who would've thought you could get viable prints from cloth

     Web Animation 

     Western Animation 
  • In an episode of the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series, a television detective mentions she can get fingerprints off a pizza crust. Even to a child that seemed off somehow.
  • Played with in an episode of Gargoyles where Broadway accidentally shoots Eliza with her gun. The police are able to pull a complete set of prints off it, but dismiss them as being "so badly smudged they didn't even look human."

     Real Life 
  • The amount of DNA necessary for a speedy, accurate and legally admissible DNA profile of a human being is the amount contained in 120 recently living cells. One-hundred-and-twenty! The only reason it takes a few days to get a DNA profile in real life from any self-respecting and law abiding forensic laboratory is because the scientists have to critically evaluate the significance of the tissue sample and how and where it was found and sampled. Thus, saliva from, say-licking an envelope-is more than enough to get a legally admissible identification. Also, the FBI patented a brand of paper that stores DNA samples for at least 14 years without degrading the sample, quite some time ago.
  • Most cases where fingerprints are found on guns. There's some dispute about how often fingerprints are found on firearms or ammunition (see this paper for a study finding fingerprints on only 93 of 1,000 firearms tested). Examiners have testified in other cases about finding usable prints on between 5% and 50% of recovered firearms, depending on how they were handled at the crime scene.
  • There is also a chance that your perpetrator doesn't have fingerprints at all. Plenty of people have been in burn accidents and certain medical patients lose their fingerprints through treatments.
  • Real Life example: In October 2007, the FBI announced that it had obtained a partial DNA profile of D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a plane in 1971 and left his necktie behind. Apparently, they managed to get DNA off it after all these years (and somehow determine that it came only from him, and not a fellow passenger's dandruff flakes that fell on it).
  • There actually is a Real Life Fingerprint database, which everyone and anyone trying to enlist in the US military must give prints for. The list is massive (millions of prints), and is probably what was referenced by the NCIS database matches. This is actually saved for uses of identification, due to the many things that may happen to a soldier, Marine, airman or sailor. Whether or not it's used for criminal cases is unknown, but likely.
    • People applying for a security clearance also have to provide fingerprints (Among other things). Many occupations also require fingerprinting, such as anything handling large amounts of cash (the CSI example with casinos, for instance), handling/dispensing prescription drugs, or selling firearms. These prints are almost certainly checked against criminal records as part of the clearance process.
  • The interesting thing is, once a person leaves the military properly (not AWOL or Dishonorable Discharge) they can submit a request that this and any DNA information the government stores of them to be destroyed since it is contractually the person's property. And on another note, most of the fingerprint information is still kept in card files with much left to be digitized because it is seen as more secure.
  • The largest fingerprint and DNA database is maintained by the UK Government; anyone who is arrested or comes into official contact with the police is fingerprinted and has their DNA stored, and these are kept permanently regardless of whether any crime was committed. Some police forces (but not all) also take biometric data from schoolchildren, which has attracted criticism. On the flip side, there have been campaigns for biometric data for children in the event of abduction.