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Acquiring and Handling Documents

In some cases, a document examiner may express an inconclusive opinion because a signature on a poor quality photocopy was not legible or because there was insufficient comparison material.  It is important to obtain the proper documents necessary to ensure that an expert opinion can be rendered in the case. The following are some tips and procedures that can aid in acquiring and handling documents:

- Handle questioned documents as little as possible. They can be examined for latent handwriting impressions and latent fingerprints. Excessive wear and handling can interfere with the latent impressions. Do not write on top of original questioned documents. Do not mark or highlight any part of an original document. Use cotton gloves to handle original documents as thin latex gloves can sometimes leave latent fingerprints.

- In criminal cases, be sure the document examiner has access to examine and photograph the questioned document before it is processed for fingerprints. Certain chemical treatments involved with fingerprint development (such as ninhydrin) are destructive processes and can smear handwritten ink entries beyond recognition.

- If examining a copy of the questioned document, inquire as to the whereabouts of the original. Originals may disappear for convenient reasons. In some cases, originals never existed because genuine signatures from another document were photocopied or scanned and transferred onto a new fraudulent document. It preferable to compare an original questioned document to original comparison materials. 

- Obtain contemporaneous comparison materials as close to the date of the questioned document as possible.

- Normal course of business documents are preferred as comparison material. Requesting writing samples from a suspect presents several problems. They may not be contemporaneous with the questioned document. A suspect may intentionally disguise his or her own writing in order to avoid detection. In some cases, a suspect may write with the non-dominant hand in order to “change” the appearance of the handwriting. If request writing exemplars are necessary, get advice from a document examiner on the procedures for collecting request writing standards.  [Click here for list of possible sources for normal course of business documents]

- If normal course of business documents are not available, try searching for signatures at a county recorder’s office or clerk of the court.

- Acquire as many known comparison samples as possible. The more the better. This helps the document examiner establish the genuine writer’s natural range of variation. Comparing a questioned signature to a single comparison signature is almost never adequate.

- Be alert to contamination of a collection of comparison signatures. In some cases, especially in elder abuse cases, the caretaker or relative may have power of attorney to sign or have become accustomed to sign on behalf of the elder for several years. In other cases, spouses may sign for each other, or secretaries may sign for their employer. 

- If there are irregular or unnatural qualities about the handwriting (such as tremor), investigate whether the writer has any known medical problems, takes medications, has a physical disability, or takes drugs or alcohol.

- An awkward writing position or uneven writing surface can cause irregularity in handwriting. Inquire as to the circumstances in which the document was signed.    

- Be sure that proper chain of custody is maintained with respect to original documents. If a chain of custody has not yet been established when acquiring original documents, start one. [Click here for Chain of Custody form] 

Precautions in Handling Disputed Signatures

Be cautious about examining a questioned document and coming to a conclusion without the expertise of a document examiner. What cannot be seen on a document with the unaided eye is sometimes more important than what can be seen. Document examiners use visual techniques such as infrared, ultraviolet light, and side or oblique lighting to detect ink differences, spot alterations, or reveal the indentations that show the forger’s practice attempts on top of the document.
Don’t jump to conclusions when a signature looks just like the comparison signatures. Signatures can be transferred to other documents through photocopy methods or even digital methods. A document examiner can tell whether a signature is genuine ink or produced through a color ink jet printer.  Alternately, don’t jump to conclusions when a signature does not match the comparison standards. Awkward writing conditions or a poorly working pen can make signatures look different.

Signatures that are too simplistic may be problematic even for document examiners. If the questioned signature and the comparison signatures are nothing more than a line, a squiggle, or a thready scratch, those types of signatures may be easy for a forger to copy.
Be wary of notarized or witnessed signatures in questioned signature cases. Notary seals can be stolen and notary signatures forged. A notary may be an accomplice to the fraudulent signature. Sometimes notaries do not properly witness signatures. In many document cases, notary log books go missing.

It is best not to make assumptions based on a preliminary comparison process. If the document is questioned, consult a board-certified forensic document examiner to ensure that the document is properly examined.

Click here for list of possible sources for normal course of business documents.
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