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What are Latent Fingerprints?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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In forensics, latent fingerprints are marks left at the scene of a crime that may not be immediately visible to the naked eye. To expose them, technicians use fingerprint powder, fuming, and other techniques. Identifying these fingerprints is an important part of evidence collection, and many technicians specialize in retrieving fingerprints from crime scenes and analyzing them in the lab in order to assist law enforcement with apprehending criminals.

The hands and feet are covered in a natural secretion due to the eccrine glands, which produce sweat, a mixture of water, salts, and other trace compounds. The sweat adheres to the friction ridges of the finger, and when a finger is placed on a surface such as glass, plastic, or wood, an impression will be left behind. The natural secretions of the body preserve the fingerprint, which is utterly distinct — no two humans have the same fingerprints.

Latent fingerprints are usually left behind by accident, because a careless criminal did not realize that his or her hands might leave a mark. Sometimes, fingerprints are made from substances other than sweat, such as blood, other body fluids, or paint. In this case, they are called patent fingerprints. Part of the analysis performed on fingerprints includes a determination of what the print was made from, as this may provide additional evidence about the criminal or the crime.

When investigators arrive at a crime scene, one of the first things they do after photographing the entire scene is dust for latent fingerprints. This ensures that no prints are missed, even if patent fingerprints, prints readily visible to the naked eye, are evident. Specialized fingerprint powder is gently brushed over surfaces which may hold fingerprints to see if any appear. If fingerprints emerge after dusting, they are photographed and then carefully lifted with clear tape before being affixed to cards. For difficult surfaces, another process known as fuming may be used to find these marks. Fuming can be used for very old fingerprints, because it causes a chemical reaction with trace substances that may be left behind, even if the sweat itself is gone.

The fingerprints are brought back to a crime lab for analysis, which usually starts with scanning them into a computer and cross checking them against a criminal database for matches. In the United States, the Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) is a national database that police investigators can use to get more information about prints found at crime scenes. The electronic database contains over 47 million records and can be used to instantly check fingerprints from a crime scene. Fingerprint records for IAFIS come from criminals, as well as citizens who are fingerprinted as part of a routine background check, and the substantial database greatly assists law enforcement in their jobs.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon309909 — On Dec 19, 2012

I say that fingerprint dusting is important, because anyone can do it if they have the right materials.

By anon244935 — On Feb 03, 2012

This site was very useful and helpful. It helped my daughter for her homework and I would highly recommend it to everyone who is studying finger prints.

By Burlap — On Sep 23, 2010

Either way you should never do crime because this technology will nail the forgetful crook. It is amazing to me how in depth a specialized technology like this can get.

By bookworm — On Mar 24, 2010

Since very often fingerprints are not visible, they are called latent impressions meaning hidden impressions.

If fingerprints are visible, for example if they are left in blood or some other visible medium, they are really not latent prints.

The whole purpose of latent prints, of lifting and processing them is to make them visible, so they can be compared to existing prints for identification purposes.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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