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Fingerprinting Air

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"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, an American, as a suspect in the Madrid Bombings - he was arrested and held for two weeks. 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. And of course, right at the heart of fingerprinting is the tenet that fingerprints are completely unique to individuals, which - although widely believed - has not been definitively shown to be true.

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. Similarly, NCIS and its ilk can make use of the fact that all military personnel have their fingerprints taken when they join up. 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, the labs that perform the comparison are often backlogged for months or more, 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. Also, DNA evidence can often have an entirely innocent explanation - your DNA is mostly likely recoverable from the houses of any friends or relatives you've visited recently, but if that friend or relative is then burgled, the presence of your DNA does not prove you did it. With all evidence, context is key...

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.


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    Comic Books 
  • DNA version. Subverted in Spider-Man in which Spidey is confronted with a woman who claims to be the daughter of his former girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. He happens to have a letter from Gwen, but notes that he can't use it to obtain a DNA sample because it's quite simply too old by this point, forcing him to retrieve a sample from her grave.
  • Dick Tracy was once left a message by a perp in alphabet blocks on a drugstore counter, left there for customers to play with. It was taken in for fingerprinting. When he checked up with Forensics later, they responded that the blocks must've been handled by just about everyone who passed through the store.
  • One Mickey Mouse story has a realistic subversion: the note sent by a criminal has no fingerprints, only a perfectly useless palm print. This being a Mickey Mouse comic, of course, the criminal's identity is found in a... somewhat less realistic fashion.note 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Se7en, the trope is initially averted when the killer deliberately coats a wall with prints, yet it still takes the finger print analysis team many man hours to identify the source. Played straight, with the killer going to excessive lengths to avoid leaving any of his own finger prints anywhere (where latex gloves could have easily sufficed).
  • In Fast Five, Tej is able to lift a full hand print off of a bikini (by allowing her mark to cop a feel while she was wearing it), and it's good enough to get through a high end scanner.
  • Subverted by Inside Man, where they find many fingerprints, but quickly realize that all any of them prove is that the dozens of suspects were all at the bank that day. Which, since they were all arrested as they left the bank, they already knew.
  • In The Dark Knight, Batman is able to get fingerprints from a bullet embedded in a wall by removing the spot it hit, using a computer program to reassemble it, and lifting a print 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 print, or that any part of the print on the shell casing would have been lost when the casing was ejected (semiautomatic) or retained (revolver). Batman is just that goddamn awesome.
  • In The Hands of Orlac, one of the detectives runs his magnifying glass over a table and can not only detect fingerprints, but identifies them as being those of Vasseur.

  • 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 that, during those five years, got soaked so badly that the writing in them became completely illegible.
  • In the Jason Wood novel Digital Knight, fingerprinting turned out to be totally useless because the shapeshifting abilities of werewolves was so accurate as to copy the fingerprints and DNA of the people they imitate. The hero had to invent a special sensor to distinguish werewolves from humans.
  • 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's 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 that 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.
  • In the film and novel Crooked House, the victim is killed by putting an eye drop solution in his insulin. The police dust the eye drop bottle and find no fingerprints on it. This is treated as highly suspicious - the victim and his wife used those eye drops to treat his glaucoma every single day, so at a minimum, their fingerprints should have been on the bottle. The only reason for there to be absolutely no fingerprints on the bottle is if someone had made a point of wiping it down.

    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 small-caliber bullet in question and all the team members look at each other as if to say "A challenge!"
      • As happens with technological advances, extracting DNA from fingerprints eventually turned out to be possible. In fact, by the time CSI: NY premiered four years after the original series, it was so prevalent that the NY Lab did it fairly regularly. In one instance the suspect's prints weren't in any database, but they got DNA from their 10-card to solve the case.
    • Warrick himself once boasted that he could get a fingerprint from air, which as in the trope introduction is where this gets its name.
    • 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).
  • One episode of CSI: Miami had an interesting variation; the fingerprints on the weapon matched a rape victim from a previous crime that the tech hadn't deleted. The tech ended up losing her job, and yes, the victim was the new perp.
  • 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, and was done on at least one of the sister shows as well.
  • In The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.., the title 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.
  • Frequently averted in The Wire. At the end of Season 1 when Kima gets shot, the shooters wear gloves. The prints the police DO get are from several blocks away after the shooters ditched their gloves and hoodies, and even then, only the print lifted from a soda can is usable. The ones they tried to pull off the pay phone are too smudged to be worth anything. And in season 5, when dealing with the bodies dumped in the vacant houses, police find almost no usable evidence to tie the crimes to anyone. When it comes to fingerprints, it's explicitly said that there's nothing they can use at any of the 22 different crime scenes.
  • Variation aversion: In the Burn Notice pilot, Michael's voice-over remarks that any decent lawyer can explain away fingerprints on the outside of a gun. Explaining away prints on the inside of the trigger assembly is another matter.
  • Averted in MythQuest. The detective tells a woman that fingerprinting a man found in a stream is impossible.
  • Averted in Life On Mars. When Sam is annoyed because a body has been moved before it's been fingerprinted, his 1970s colleagues are bemused because the technology to take fingerprints off skin hasn't been invented yet.
  • Subverted in an episode of NUMB3RS. They have two potential suspects and a partial print. Charlie is criticizing the forensic technician's methods—how does she know which finger it's from, etc.—and she gets pissed at him and points out that the print has a rare marking that only matches one of the suspects. Then it turns out that the culprit was a third man, who had the same rare marking on one of his fingers.
  • One episode of the live-action Zorro show had Zorro invent fingerprinting. He investigates the Alcalde's (Mayor's) office in an episode where the Alcalde is acting strangely: rescinding unpopular decrees one moment, then punishing people for violating the decree they were just told was rescinded the next. He finds two sets of fingerprints in the Alcalde's private office (which he presumably doesn't let other people into), leading him to realize that there are two Alcaldes, eventually leading to a Spot the Imposter moment in a public duel against both Alcaldes. Subversion in that the fingerprints were only used to confirm that there was an imposter, but not to identify the imposter. That was done by Zorro pointing out that the real Alcalde had a scar on the back of his wrist from a previous fight with him and cutting the sleeves of both Alcaldes to see which one had the scar.
  • Law & Order:
    • Played it a bit more realistically in regards to latent prints. The detectives often mention that in processing the crime scene they could only find inconclusive partial prints or dozens that couldn't be identified.
    • In addition, one L&O episode revolved around a fingerprint technician who gave the detectives positive matches by cooking (faking) the evidence. Van Buren takes it hard, as one of the cases the tech cooked was the one that got her promoted to Detective First Grade and helped make her career.
    • This is often averted on Special Victims Unit too: There have been episodes where the only fingerprint and/or DNA evidence they've had were barely passable matches. (As in, yeah they match this guy but they could match ten thousand other people too.) This is generally used as a device to force the detectives to go and gather actual evidence.
  • NCIS:
    • Averted in an episode where partial prints were run through AFIS and it did come back with something: 80,000 possible matches.
    • In another episode, AFIS was backed up for several days, nearly allowing the criminal to escape.
    • They do manage to "rehydrate" a burned corpse to retrieve prints.
    • Ducky once claimed they had gathered evidence like this, and relied on The CSI Effect to trick the suspect.
    • Another episode saw the Victim of the Week killed in a public restroom. They found so many prints that Abby stopped running them through AFIS.
    • One episode had all power cut to NCIS (and most of Washington) as part of a break-in. Along with CODIS going down leaving Abby needing to manually distil plasma for the victim's bloodwork, it also knocks out access to AFIS and she, Ziva, Tony and McGee have to match fingerprints manually from index cards. It takes all night.
  • The Closer: Varies as the plot requires. In one memorable episode, they actually sluff the skin off the corpse's hand in order to get a print. In order to use the glove-like skin, they have to slide it over Chief Johnson's hand. This actually works.
  • In a possibly literal example of this trope, Star Trek: Voyager had the crew use "displaced photons" to determine who was telepathically attacking the Maquis crew members.
  • Averted in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. When they're looking for a DNA sample from Dr. Pulaski, they search her quarters and eventually come up with a hairbrush. Data finds a hair with an intact follicle, which is where you'd find DNA.
    • In an even more literal example, Data tracked a person's movements through a system of caves by monitoring the displaced air from the person's passage.
    • Either by coincidence or as a result of an intentional Shout-Out, a basically similar technique was developed by the bad guys in Blake's 7 to detect someone using a teleporter to break into one of their facilities.
  • In Continuum, Kiera's multitool can produce a bio-reactive mist that makes any fingerprints exposed to it show up highlighted in her Augmented Reality cybernetics. Justified because it's futuretech Applied Phlebotinum.
  • You can get fingerprints from a wine glass, right? So logically, according to Designated Survivor, you can get a fingerprint from a smartphone photo of a wine glass. It turns out that this might actually be plausible, at least at a good enough level to fool the biometric ID technology on modern smartphones. Sleep tight!

    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?
  • Averted in Mass Effect 2, when Shepard and Kasumi have to thoroughly search to find a usable DNA sample from their target's own bedroom.
  • The Batman: Arkham Series has Batman use his Detective Vision as an Everything Sensor to analyze and find clues in crime scenes, sometimes to put together pieces of the puzzle and solve a mystery, but often to find some method to track someone through the environment. Arkham Asylum was especially bad about using this trope, at one point he tracked a corrupt security officer across the compound via traces of bourbon in the air. Arkham City is slightly better about this, such as using multiple impact points to trace the origin of a sniper's bullet, although the convenience of certain clues was a little suspicious. It is mostly averted by Arkham Origins as, while maybe better than real life, several sequences involve a "scrubbing" mode where he uses realistic evidence (scuff marks, bullet entry angles, explosive patterns) to recreate crime scenes in three dimensional space, allowing him to locate vital evidence missed by the police.
  • Averted in the fourth case in the first Murder, She Wrote hidden object game when Jessica Fletcher comments that the candlestick used as the murder weapon has been handled too many times during the two years since to have any useful prints.
  • One puzzle in Find the Cure! involves lifting a fingerprint off of a mop handle in order to bypass a fingerprint scanner.
  • The forensic investigations in Condemned: Criminal Origins and its sequel involve you getting an improbable level of detail from your on-site equipment, with the second game probably being the more ridiculous because, rather than carrying several separate tools in a bag, everything Ethan uses is stuffed into a smartphone that's practically a tricorder; at one point, Ethan simply scans a severed arm up in the mountains, and Rosa is able to get information off of it that shows there's animal saliva all over it which itself shows signs that the animal in question is rabid. With that amount of detail, it's surprising that there's about one set of fingerprints per game that's somehow too smudged to be usable.

    Visual Novels 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • In the DS-only parts of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series (i.e. the 5th case of the first game and the 2nd case in the fourth, Apollo Justice) you must at times dust for fingerprints. The series, however, subverts this trope by having the fingerprinting be mostly realistic. Not only do you not get usable print a lot of the time, but you're shown, and have to do, the entire process, from finding a usable spot, finding a print within that spot, then comparing the prints to those in file, so it doesn't feel like the process is magically down with some magic bottle of dust. The list of fingerprints you compare the lifted print to also only contains those tied to case, subverting the common unrealistic tread in crime dramas of comparing it to a large database. The only unrealistic aspect is how easily prints are lifted; however, this can be seen as an Acceptable Break from Reality, since it would be tedious and long as hell to realistically lift the prints.
    • Whenever prints are lifted from a piece of evidence that wouldn't normally hold prints, there's always almost always an explanation; For example, Juniper Woods' fingerprints were found on a stuffed animal's tail because it happened to be made of vinyl. And Ema Skye's fingerprints were found on a piece of cloth because the jacket it was cut from was made out of leather.
    • As shown above, an inverted example comes in episode 2 of the third game. When defending a client for the larceny of an urn, Phoenix ends up cornering the real thief due to his own fingerprints being on the urn. The urn was vigorously polished after it was secured at a exhibition, and the only time after that that he had to get his prints onto the urn was when he was feeling around inside a bag that was sitting in Luke Atmey's office. Therefore his prints prove that the urn was at Atmey's office between it being stolen and then found. This comes back to massively bite Phoenix in the butt later on when it's discovered that a murder occurred at the exact same time as the theft. Phoenix basically just proved the bad guy has an airtight alibi. Oops.

    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, to which everyone trying to enlist in the US Armed Forces must give their prints. 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 that could leave them otherwise unrecognizable. 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 those 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.
  • There have been two major claims for Jack the Ripper's identity based off DNA:
    • In 2002, Patricia Cornwell claimed that Walter Sickert was the Ripper based off multiple pieces of evidence, one of the largest being DNA from a stamp of one of the letters. However, since it is believed that most of the letters are hoaxes, this doesn't prove it. In addition, any DNA obtained this way would have to be mitochondrial DNA, which isn't unique to an individual (in fact, millions of people have the same mitochondrial DNA)
    • In 2014, Dr. Jari Louhelainen and author Russell Edwards claimed to find evidence that Aaron Kominsky was the Ripper from DNA on a shawl owned and worn by Catherine Eddowes when she died. However, this claim was heavily criticized, and when it was finally admitted for peer review, several flaws were found, predominantly that the DNA evidence that it was linked to Catherine Eddowes was incorrect note  and that the shawl had been in public circulation for 126 years, meaning that any DNA evidence on it would be compromised.