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Originally published Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 6:25 PM

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Corrected version

Portable fingerprint scanners aid King County deputies

The King County Sheriff's Office has started using a pocket-size piece of technology that instantly reads fingerprints.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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His cop's sixth sense told Deputy Ryan Abbott something just wasn't right about the woman at the SeaTac check-cashing business.

The King County sheriff's deputy had been summoned to the store by employees who believed the woman might be trying to cash a stolen check.

She handed Abbott her driver's license with photo, but a computer check revealed the woman had no criminal history — not exactly the kind of person who would typically be passing a stolen check.

Still, recalled Abbott, "I was suspicious of her ID and the fact that when we ran the name we didn't get a (criminal) record."

That's when Abbott pulled out a device about the size of a smartphone and asked the woman if he could scan her fingerprints. Within 30 seconds Abbott had the woman's real name and learned she was wanted on two felony warrants for identity theft.

Even in the increasingly computer-reliant field of law enforcement, the MorphoIDent portable fingerprint scanner is being hailed as "the next step in helping to fight crime" by King County Sheriff Steve Strachan. The device allows cops in the field to take two images of a suspect's fingerprints, which are transmitted, via Bluetooth, to the deputy's in-car computer, where they are then run through King County's Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), a database of more than 700,000 prints taken in the county.

Within 30 seconds the device will reveal whether a person's fingerprints are on file, either as a wanted person or as someone with a criminal record.

"When I first started using it, (suspects) didn't believe it was real," Abbott said. "Even the guys who lied about their names say, 'That's cool' and 'I didn't think it would work.' "

Abbott is one of three sheriff's deputies who have been assigned the MorphoIDent, which is made by the Virginia-based company MorphoTrak. Sheriff's Office leaders have been so happy with the results that they have ordered six more.

Identifying criminal suspects — or ruling out the innocent — in the field can be time-consuming, if not impossible, for law enforcers. Suspects frequently give false names and can often back them up with realistic fake IDs.

Cops such as Abbott call it the "name game" — the question-and-answer sparring that law-enforcement officers often engage in to get suspects to reveal their name. Over the years, Abbott, who is assigned to police SeaTac, developed his own conversational tactics to cajole, trick or coerce suspects into revealing themselves.

When that doesn't work — and often it does not — officers have to drive suspects to police stations and precinct offices to obtain fingerprints on bulky, stationary machines. The prints are then run through a computer.

This all takes up valuable time.

"The stationary machines require rolled fingerprints of every finger. The mobile machines allow the officers to stay on the streets and they only capture two fingers," said Carol Gillespie, program manager for King County AFIS.

But some have expressed concern that the devices will be used not only to check fingerprints, but to gather them as well.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, for one, wants to make sure use of the devices is closely monitored.

"This technology should not be deployed without formal restrictions on its use — regulations that ensure that biometric data on innocent people are not stored, and that limit their use to situations where the police have probable cause that a suspect has committed a crime," Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the ACLU branch, wrote in an email.

Narayan added that "criminal justice databases are rife with error. The databases that these devices rely upon are often error-filled, and these devices may intensify the consequences of such inaccuracies."

In response, Strachan said, "We will certainly be attentive to issues related to privacy rights and civil rights." He said the Sheriff's Office will be working closely with the ACLU before putting more devices into use.

Gillespie, of King County AFIS, said the portable machines do not keep the fingerprints on file.

In the 10 months he's been using MorphoIDent, Abbott estimates that he has used it almost every day he has been on duty. Deputies from across the county have called on him to help identify uncooperative suspects as well.

"I use it any time we have questions about somebody's ID or if they don't have a license," Abbott said.

The device isn't used only to identify criminal suspects. The Arizona Department of Corrections uses MorphoIDent to verify the identity of inmates at intake and release. Police in Arizona have also used it to identify traffic-accident victims so next of kin can be notified as soon as possible.

Police in Northern Virginia, Missouri and Phoenix also use MorphoIDent. Port of Seattle police use similar devices.

Kitsap County sheriff's spokesman Scott Wilson said his department has been experimenting with similar devices for several years, though not MorphoIDent, but have run into technical glitches and problems with the machines freezing up.

"It's a very good idea. We get a lot of people who like to play the name game and give us false names," Wilson said. "But we can't afford to bring in the updated models. Right now money is really tight for everybody."

Eve Fillon, spokeswoman for MorphoTrak, said the devices cost $1,717 each. But, she added, the price can vary depending on how many devices a police agency purchases. Fillon said the company hasn't had any issues with devices freezing up.

A levy before King County voters on Nov. 6 would help pay for the six wireless devices. The AFIS levy, which would replace an existing levy, would establish a levy rate of 5.92 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for a six-year period starting in 2013. If adopted, the levy is estimated to raise $20 million a year for the county's AFIS program, at a cost of about $20.72 a year for the owner of a $350,000 home.

The bulk of the levy would go toward paying for salaries for AFIS staff, while a smaller portion would go toward replacement of the county's AFIS lab, which uses a computerized system to store fingerprints and palmprints that can be accessed by law enforcement.

"You're talking about trying to solve the most serious crimes," Strachan said, adding that he believes the price tag is worth it. "This is as close as we get to 'CSI.' This job is not like TV but this is as close as we can get."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

Information in this article, originally published Oct. 18, 2012, was corrected Oct. 19, 2012. A previous version of this story said that the bulk of the AFIS levy before King County voters on Nov. 6 will pay for a new lab. The majority of the levy will pay for salaries for AFIS staff.

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