In U.S. v. Ruvalcaba-Garcia (5/10/2019), the U.S. Court of Appeals (9th Circuit) considered a defendant’s appeal from a conviction for illegal entry into the U.S.

The defendant argued that the trial judge erred by failing to make any findings on the reliability of the government fingerprint experts. The Court of Appeals agreed, stating:

Here, the district court abused its discretion by failing to make any findings regarding the reliability of Beers’s expert testimony and instead delegating that issue to the jury. Indeed, the district court made this error three times during Ruvalcaba’s second trial. After the government conducted an initial voir dire of Beers and “move[d] to have [him] qualified as an expert fingerprint technician,” the court responded, “That’s a determination for the jury.” After Ruvalcaba cross-examined Beers and the government again “move[d] to qualify him as an expert,” the court responded, “Again, that’s an issue for the jury.” And when Ruvalcaba “object[ed] to the qualifying [of Beers] as an expert,” the court overruled the objection and told the jury that it was up to them “to decide whether the witness by virtue of his experience and training is qualified to give opinions.”

The court, however, affirmed the conviction finding the error harmless. The court stated:

In this case, the record is sufficient for us to determine that Beers’s testimony had “a reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of the relevant discipline.” Barabin, 740 F.3d at 463 (quoting Kumho Tire, 526 U.S. at 149, 119 S.Ct. 1167). Beers testified without contradiction that he had amassed 33 years of experience as a fingerprint technician and instructor with the FBI, analyzing more than 300,000 fingerprints and testifying as an expert in some 250 criminal cases, including in proceedings before this district judge. His testimony, moreover, was based on the Henry system, a methodology of fingerprint classification that “ha[s] been tested in the adversarial system for roughly a hundred years.” United States v. Calderon-Segura, 512 F.3d 1104, 1109 (9th Cir. 2008). As we recently explained in another illegal-reentry case affirming the admission of Beers’s testimony, his methodology “is far from junk science—it can be tested and peer reviewed and is generally accepted by the relevant scientific community.” Flores, 901 F.3d at 1165.