A fingerprint is an impression of the friction ridges of all or any part of the finger. A friction ridge is a raised portion of the epidermis on the palmar (palm) or digits (fingers and toes) or plantar (sole) skin, consisting of one or more connected ridge units of friction ridge skin. These are sometimes known as "epidermal ridges" which are caused by the underlying interface between the dermal papillae of the dermis and the interpapillary (rete) pegs of the epidermis. These epidermal ridges serve to amplify vibrations triggered when fingertips brush across an uneven surface, better transmitting the signals to sensory nerves involved in fine texture perception. The ridges assist in gripping rough surfaces, as well as smooth wet surfaces.

Fingerprints may be deposited in natural secretions from the eccrine glands present in friction ridge skin (secretions consisting primarily of water) or they may be made by ink or contaminants transferred from the peaks of friction skin ridges to a relatively smooth surface such as a fingerprint card. The term fingerprint normally refers to impressions transferred from the pad on the last joint of fingers and thumbs, though fingerprint cards also typically record portions of lower joint areas of the fingers (which are also used to make identifications).

Fingerprints used for identification

Fingerprint identification (sometimes referred to as dactyloscopy) or palm print identification is the process of comparing questioned and known friction skin ridge impressions (see Minutiae) from fingers or palms or even toes to determine if the impressions are from the same finger or palm. The flexibility of friction ridge skin means that no two finger or palm prints are ever exactly alike (never identical in every detail), even two impressions recorded immediately after each other. Fingerprint identification (also referred to as individualization) occurs when an expert (or an expert computer system operating under threshold scoring rules) determines that two friction ridge impressions originated from the same finger or palm (or toe, sole) to the exclusion of all others.

A known print is the intentional recording of the friction ridges, usually with black printers ink rolled across a contrasting white background, typically a white card. Friction ridges can also be recorded digitally using a technique called Live-Scan. A latent print is the chance reproduction of the friction ridges deposited on the surface of an item. Latent prints are often fragmentary and may require chemical methods, powder, or alternative light sources in order to be visualized.

When friction ridges come in contact with a surface that is receptive to a print, material on the ridges, such as perspiration, oil, grease, ink, etc. can be transferred to the item. The factors which affect friction ridge impressions are numerous, thereby requiring examiners to undergo extensive and objective study in order to be trained to competency. Pliability of the skin, deposition pressure, slippage, the matrix, the surface, and the development medium are just some of the various factors which can cause a latent print to appear differently from the known recording of the same friction ridges. Indeed, the conditions of friction ridge deposition are unique and never duplicated. This is another reason why extensive and objective study is necessary for examiners to achieve competency.

Fingerprint types

Latent prints

Although the word latent means hidden or invisible, in modern usage for forensic science the term latent prints means any chance of accidental impression left by friction ridge skin on a surface, regardless of whether it is visible or invisible at the time of deposition. Electronic, chemical and physical processing techniques permit visualization of invisible latent print residue whether they are from natural secretions of the eccrine glands present on friction ridge skin (which produce palmar sweat, consisting primarily of water with various salts and organic compounds in solution), or whether the impression is in a contaminant such as motor oil, blood, paint, ink, etc. There are different types of fingerprint patterns such as an arch, tented arch, a loop, and a whorl. Each indicate what type of fingerprint it is.

Latent prints may exhibit only a small portion of the surface of the finger and may be smudged, distorted, overlapping, or any combination, depending on how they were deposited. For these reasons, latent prints are an “inevitable source of error in making comparisons,” as they generally “contain less clarity, less content, and less undistorted information than a fingerprint taken under controlled conditions, and much, much less detail compared to the actual patterns of ridges and grooves of a finger”.

Patent prints

These are friction ridge impressions of unknown origins which are obvious to the human eye and are caused by a transfer of foreign material on the finger, onto a surface. Because they are already visible they need no enhancement, and are generally photographed instead of being lifted in the same manner as latent prints. An attempt to preserve the actual print is always made with numerous techniques; for later presentation in court. Finger deposits can include materials such as ink, dirt, or blood onto a surface.

Plastic prints

A plastic print is a friction ridge impression from a finger or palm (or toe/foot) deposited in a material that retains the shape of the ridge detail. Commonly encountered examples are melted candle wax, putty removed from the perimeter of window panes and thick grease deposits on car parts. Such prints are already visible and need no enhancement, but investigators must not overlook the potential that invisible latent prints deposited by accomplices may also be on such surfaces. After photographically recording such prints, attempts should be made to develop other non-plastic impressions deposited at natural finger/palm secretions (eccrine gland secretions) or contaminates.