In the early years of the 20th century, French criminologist Edmond Locard discovered a principle called trace exchange. Locard, who would come to be known as the pioneer of forensic science, argued that a criminal always leaves something identifiable at the crime scene and carries something from the spot. Decades later, American scientist Paul L Kirk called the principle a silent witness against the criminal.
Whatever the wrongdoer touches or leaves behind, such as fingerprints or footprints, hair strands, cloth fibres, marks from tools used, blood or semen, are factual evidence that can be instrumental in solving a case. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, cannot perjure itself, cannot be wholly absent, he argued. “Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value,” he said.
Newer and advancing technologies are crucial to an investigating officer – take, for example, CCTV systems capturing movements of people, videos and photos of criminals, and access control mechanisms of large complexes recording the signature, fingerprints, iris or retina scans. These evidences can be used forensically in two ways.
One, they can help in establishing that the person caught has committed the crime as fingerprints, DNA and handwriting samples may be matched with physical and biological evidence found at or near the crime scene. Second, they can be used in searching the data bank of fingerprints, palm prints and biological characteristics of criminals from the past.
Unfortunately, in India, we have not maintained data banks (except fingerprints and palm prints) due to an inadequacy in the legal system. The Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920 was the only law that allowed the collection and storage of fingerprints and palm prints of criminals. Each state operated its individual fingerprint bureau which kept a record of fingerprints of people previously involved in crime in that particular state.
But the law didn’t address two significant issues.
One, the fingerprint bureaus are stand-alone databases and are not connected to each other. If a man has a criminal record in state A but has committed a crime in state B for the first time, his fingerprints will find no match in state B as he has no previous record there. This highlights the need for a centralised database connecting all the bureaus currently working in silos. Information centralisation and exchange will also improve the time taken to solve cases and prevent the commission of more crimes by the same people.
Two, this Act covered only fingerprints and palm prints. Criminals also leave traces in the form of physical and biological evidence. There was a need to include these recognisable traces, including unique identification like retina scans.
The Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill, 2022, which was passed by Parliament last week, addresses these difficulties and provides cohesive tools to investigating officers through better forensic support. This Act permits collecting identifiable physical and biological samples (including retina and iris scans), signatures and handwriting of criminals and storing them in national data banks.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) will be the nodal agency responsible for recording and maintaining the records of criminals from anywhere in the country, making it impossible for criminals to take advantage of inadequate and fractured data banks. This new Act is a commendable step in leveraging technology to streamline forensic aid to investigation, improve crime working out ratios and reduce future crime incidence rates.
Karnal Singh is a former chief of the Enforcement Directorate
The views expressed are personal