Jail explains why fingerprints failed to identify defendant

Steve Myrick

This week, Dukes County Jail officials reviewed records and gave a fuller explanation of how an error in the booking procedure allowed a defendant arrested on larceny, assault, and prostitution charges to hide her true identity and fugitive status from jail deputies and police for five days.

“It was an error, no question,” Sheriff Michael McCormack said during a review of the records.

At first, Shannon Owens, 27, of New York City, identified herself as her sister, Brianna Owens, 20, of Providence, Rhode Island. She was not identified until her sister called Edgartown police to say that her sister had stolen her driver’s license and was using her identity. Only then did police discover that Shannon Owens was a fugitive, with arrest warrants issued from a New Jersey court.

The mistake originated in the fingerprinting process. Jailers did not retransmit Ms. Owen’s fingerprints when the first transmission failed to connect to a state and national database.

Once an individual is arrested on the Island, he or she is processed through the jail. Part of the process uses AFIS, an acronym for Automated Fingerprinting Identification System.

The machine used to make the AFIS connection is about the size of an office copier. A small optical scanner on the front of the machine can scan the fingerprints of up to four fingers at once. Before the optical scanner, law enforcement agencies pressed each finger of an arrestee on an ink pad, and then rolled it on a paper form to make a fingerprint.

Occasionally, the scanner sends back an error message, telling the operator to rescan some or all of the fingers. An error message asking for a rescan is not a malfunction, but a normal part of the procedure, jail officials said.

Once a full set of fingerprints is scanned, pressing a button transmits the fingerprints to Massachusetts State Police, where the prints are checked against a database of people with open arrest warrants and criminal records. State Police forward the fingerprints to the FBI, where they are checked against a national database for open warrants, criminal records, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement records that include people wanted for deportation or questioning about their immigration status.

Reports on any matching fingerprints found in cross checks with various databases are returned to the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department. Jail officials say those reports are not instant, like a Google search, but can take several hours.

In the case of Ms. Owens, who was arrested and booked on September 26, records show that AFIS attempted to transmit the fingerprints to State Police and the FBI, but five minutes after the operator sent the fingerprints, the machine returned an error message that said they were not transmitted. That is where the system broke down. The fingerprints should have been retransmitted immediately, but there are no records that show the fingerprints were retransmitted until October 1, the day police learned Ms. Owens’s true identity and notified jail officials.

Because New Jersey courts had issued an arrest warrant, Ms. Owens’s bail, originally set at $3,000, was revoked.

If the fingerprints had been retransmitted at the time of her booking into jail, the FBI database would have revealed Shannon Owens’s lengthy criminal record of assault and prostitution in New York and New Jersey, and her open arrest warrants for failing to appear in court on charges of assaulting a law enforcement officer and throwing bodily fluids at department of corrections employees.

The error raises questions about the protocol, including the length of time it takes to return reports.

If an arrest happens during hours when the Edgartown District Court is not open, a bail commissioner is called to the jail to set bail. The bail commissioner must consider exactly the same factors a judge would consider if the defendant were standing in the courtroom. The commissioner can consider the seriousness of the crime, previous defaults, and other factors. Bail is set not as punishment, but solely as a way to ensure the defendant appears for his next court date.

In the hypothetical case of a defendant who gave police false identification, and there was some error in transmitting the fingerprints, or reports on matching fingerprints were not returned for several hours, the bail commissioner would not be aware of any fugitive warrants. That could lead to a dangerous criminal being released on low bail.

“It’s always a concern,” Sheriff McCormack said, “especially in a transient population we deal with. The fingerprints coming back from the State Police and FBI are not a condition of bail. If we did have a question as to the person’s identification, we would voice that concern to the bail commissioner.”

Sheriff McCormack said after the error was discovered, he reviewed the fingerprinting procedures, with an eye toward preventing similar errors in the future.

“We’ve taken the necessary steps to make sure people take appropriate action if prints are not transmitted,” he said.