Cops Test Handheld Fingerprint Reader

Tuesday, August 17th 2004, 1:44 pm
By: News On 6

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) _ Several Minnesota police departments are field testing a handheld device that scans a suspect's fingerprint and digitally checks it against Minnesota's criminal history and fingerprint database.

Police and the device maker say it's helping law enforcement officers identify suspicious persons quickly when they don't have a driver's license, but defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates are wary.

The device, IBIS (for Integrated Biometric Identification System), was recently put to work when a 25-year-old St. Paul woman was stopped at the exit of Rainbow Foods in Eagan carrying baby formula that had not been purchased.

She didn't have her driver's license and gave police several versions of her name. Within minutes, IBIS identified the woman, who had four warrants out for her arrest for shoplifting and providing false information to police, said Eagan police officer Jennifer Ruby.

Eagan police arrested the woman on July 22 and charged her with a misdemeanor for giving false information to police. She was not charged with theft.

Eagan police have just one of 130 IBIS units in the country being tested in Minnesota, California and Oregon, according to its Minnetonka-based manufacturer, Indentix Inc.

The technology debuted in October 2002 in Hennepin County and Ontario, Calif., with the help of a multimillion-dollar National Institute of Justice grant, and the handheld IBIS unit debuted last summer. Today the technology is being tested in the Twin Cities in about 20 mostly west-metro police departments.

The cost of the IBIS unit has dropped from $14,000 to $4,500, according to Identix. Improving cellular phone network technology means IBIS units one day could be standard-issue equipment for every officer.

But at least one defense attorney cautions that IBIS, if used recklessly, could trample individuals' search-and-seizure rights and may be ripe for a legal challenge.

Indentix and officers using IBIS units say the technology is being used legally and is saving officers and suspects a trip to the jail for fingerprinting and identification.

``We are talking a couple of hours versus a few minutes,'' said Eagan Police Chief Kent Therkelsen. ``It will also help us put some people in jail who belong in jail.''

Eagan police say they use IBIS only if all other methods of identification fail.

``It's not for every traffic stop, and it's not mandatory,'' Therkelsen said. ``A person provides a fingerprint. It's not an arrestable offense if they don't.''

Since getting the device on July 22, Eagan police have used it on suspected shoplifters and during a prostitution bust.

The fingerprints taken by IBIS are not stored. For now, IBIS searches only Minnesota's criminal histories and Hennepin County's gang database. Anyone who has never been arrested and fingerprinted in Minnesota won't be identified.

So far, Hennepin County's chief public defender has deferred legal challenges. He said if the use of IBIS units becomes more widespread and individuals who are stopped by police feel compelled to provide their fingerprints, the IBIS could end up in court.

``There is certainly the potential for challenges if people's privacy and constitutional search and seizure rights are violated,'' said public defender Leonardo Castro. ``The authority of a police officer diminishes, if not eliminates, the voluntary nature of most of their requests. The Supreme Court ruled you have to give your name. A fingerprint is a whole different ball of wax.''

Minnesota police used the handheld IBIS units 2,700 times from October 2002 to May 2004, according to Identix. Of people who were fingerprinted, 432 had criminal histories and were identified through the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension database. Five percent of the total number of individuals searched were detained further.