Action News exposes a lapse in Pennsylvania criminal system

Watch report from Action News
February 19, 2014 8:46:33 AM PST
An Action News investigation turns up a gaping hole in Pennsylvania's criminal history system.

It is a seemingly simple part of the booking process, taking fingerprints, but Action News found out that it is not happening in some major cases including assaults, horrific sex crimes, even murder.

Once some of these violent offenders are released, they are walking free with no evidence on the state police criminal record that they were even locked up for a crime in the first place.

If you are arrested, there is nothing to stop you from saying your name is John Smith, and there is no way for law enforcement to track who you really are, outside of the one identifying mark held on the tip of your finger.

Action News has learned that some police departments are failing to properly fingerprint offenders, so hundreds and thousands of records of brutal crimes are never being placed in the state's criminal history database.

"Fingerprints are the single method of confirming an individual's identity. Anyone can provide a fictitious name and date of birth, and they often do," said Lt. Col. Scott Snyder.

It is the mark left by the touch of a finger that law enforcement use to identify, track and ID the crowds of accused criminals moving in and out of the justice system each and every day.

"The law requires that every person who is arrested be fingerprinted," said Rep. Todd Stephens.

But there is one problem, records obtained by Action News show police across Pennsylvania are failing to fingerprint, on average 20% of all offenders they arrest.

"If fingerprints are not submitted for a particular arrest, the criminal history related to that arrest will not be on file with us," explained Lt. Col. Snyder.

We poured through 6 months of criminal data supplied to Action News and found at least 22,000 offenders were not fingerprinted in the first 6 months of 2013. And without a fingerprint, not a single detail of the arrests, not a mugshot, not the offenders name or the charge, no record of the arrest is added to the state's criminal background system.

For sex crimes:

"There were 224 cases of rape in that 6 month period in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; 55 of them were not fingerprinted, that's 24 ? %," said Rep. Stephens.

To murder:

"There were 21 murder cases within that period of time, and 5 of them weren't fingerprinted," said Rep. Stephens.

So does that mean that there could be hundreds of thousands of cases where people's criminal histories didn't follow them?

The State Police says it is unlikely it would be that extensive. "But I don't know, there is no way for us to tell," said Lt. Col. Snyder.

Action News scoured the records to identify hundreds violent offenders who weren't fingerprinted, like Wilbert Colon who was convicted of murder, or Marlon Vick, who pled guilty to raping a 14 year old girl, and Carlos Mendez Ramirez who plead guilty to a near fatal assault.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency warns thousands of criminals just like these men could one day end up buying firearms or working around children without law enforcement or anyone ever knowing the details about the crimes in their past.

"If someone was to purchase a weapon and there was incomplete information about prior felony convictions, that could be a problem," said Linda Rosenberg, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

"When you come back to whose responsibility it is, it is really the initiating agency and the arresting officer who is responsible to be sure they are processed," said Coatesville Police Chief Jack Laufer. "In our instance our numbers are low for the city of Coatesville."

State records show the Coatesville police department is the second least compliant police department in the entire state. They are only fingerprinting about 34% of all suspects they arrest. That means the criminal histories of 66% of offenders they arrest are never being added to the states database.

When asked what he thought about the 33% compliance record for the Coatesville Police Department, Chief Laufer said it was unacceptable.

"No, it is not acceptable, not acceptable for Coatesville City Police Department or law enforcement in general," said Chief Laufer. "I think that we are near the bottom as you indicated, there is no denying that. Our goal now is to make a difference and make sure we get those compliance number up."

Across the state, compliance rated are right around 80%.

Representative Stephens is pressing law enforcement for more accountability.

"They have had people walk in their barracks to register for Megan's Law, and when they walk in and the state police run their criminal history, they come up clean with no criminal history," said Rep. Stephens.

Stephens cautions the sanctity of the system, and the safety of our citizens depends on it.

"That is a huge hole. There are people in our state prisons that if you ran their criminal history today, they would have no convictions, yet they are in state prison," said Rep. Stephens.

Another issue is that the penalty for some crimes is based in part on previous convictions, so without the correct history of prior offenses, criminals may not be serving sentences required by law.

The Coatesville Police Chief says they have been diligently going through their arrest records since we sat down and found a glitch in the system.

They hope that by correcting it they will their compliance rate up to 50%.

The Philadelphia Police, we are happy to report, boasts a 99 percent compliance rate.

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LINK: How does your police department stack up?


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