The improper or careless handling of a questioned document can compromise the examination and hence forth the entire case. In most cases, protocol for handling document evidence is known and expected to follow.
Because the questioned document examiner (QDE) usually is not one of the original crime scene responders or the investigating detective, he or she is only responsible for the proper care and handling of evidence once it comes into the document examiner’s possession. Controlling the actions of those individuals handling the evidence prior to its submission is outside the scope of the forensic scientist’s responsibility.
The process of proper handling of document evidence begins when a document is first recognized as having some level of significance in a crime or civil inquiry.
Procedures in Handling Documents
- Common sense is the first of two golden rules in the care and handling of evidence. Proper collection and handling procedures help maintain integrity of the evidence. Improper handling of the evidence can limit the examination results. Any alteration can seriously compromise the examination by preventing certain non-destructive testing to determine indented writing or ink differentiation. As a final note on this rule, prior to the examination, the QDE should be made aware of additional forensic testing that will be done upon completion of his or her examination. This information will help to ensure the evidence is not compromised, thereby interfering with or preventing a forensic examination by other disciplines.
- The second golden rule: the document examination must take place before the evidence is examined by other forensic disciplines. For example, processing the document for latent prints prevents the QDE from examining it for indented writing. Latent print processing may contaminate or damage the ink. This type of damage can prevent the QDE from conducting a comparison of the disputed text to the suspected writer’s known exemplar. In some instances, the document must be subjected to an examination involving destructive testing. Thin-layer chromatography (TLC), for example, requires removal of an area of ink and paper (media) for determination of the ink sample’s chemical makeup. Therefore, to ensure a comprehensive document examination, the QDE has to have first priority in examining the evidence.
- Wearing of gloves is recommended to ensure that latent prints from crime scene responders are not added to the disputed document. Careless handling can also cause cross-contamination that directly affects the interpretation of the evidence.
- The investigator should record the location of each document in a separate log or by writing this information on the evidence bag. If recorded on the evidence package, this information must be written prior to the document’s insertion to prevent the introduction of writing indentations.
A document will retain its evidentiary value by observing the following guidelines:
1. Use staples, pins, or clips.
2. Make perforations.
3. Create new folds.
4. Write on or otherwise mark the documents. If labeling and initialing is necessary, then make identification marks in blank spaces.
5. Write on the evidence envelope if it contains the document.
6. Touch the document with a pencil, pen, or other pointed instrument.
7. Glue the pieces of a torn or fragmented document onto a background. Submit them “as is” in a sealed evidence package.
8. Make erasures.
9. Make any tracings.
10. Cut or tear a document. Also, do not attempt to repair a cut.
11. Underscore, highlight, or circle words.
12. Carry disputed documents loosely in pockets.
13. Allow other people to handle or tamper with questioned writings.
14. Allow the suspect to handle or see the disputed document.
15. Allow anyone other than a properly trained forensic scientist to make chemical or other tests.
1. Use envelopes for storage and transportation. The envelopes should be large enough to hold the document without folding. If the document is to be examined for fingerprints or indented writing, wear gloves or hold it tightly between the sides of the fingers, but only long enough to place it in the evidence envelope. Be sure to label the envelope for fingerprinting.
2. Photocopy, photograph, or scan the documents as required — the process will not damage them in any way. Do not use the auto-feed option on a photocopier.
3. Protect documents from excessive heat, light, or dampness.
4. Prepare a complete history of each document showing date, place, and from whom it was obtained.
5. Handle documents as little as possible.
6. Remember: The document evidence must be examined first before it is subjected to additional forensic examinations. Be sure to state on the evidence package or in the request to the QDE that additional forensic testing is desired.