Can a preliminary examination be done based on faxed or emailed images?

From a technical point-of-view it is possible to use reproductions, such as faxed or emailed images, to conduct a preliminary examination of the material. In fact, it is possible to do a ‘complete’ examination and evaluation with such materials, but it places significant limitation on the result. It is definitely not recommended. Faxing, or more often emailing, images of documents may expedite the process slightly, but it is very important to understand that doing so has a significant downside.

Original items are always recommended for this type of work. The time spent in shipping the originals for examination is well worth it to ensure the best possible work gets done.

The Bottom Line: Any reproduction, including a fax, photocopy or PDF, is a somewhat limited representation of the original item. The degree of that limitation will vary from one instance/item to the next and may depend on what aspect of the document is in question. However, the results of any (preliminary) evaluation done using reproductions is unlikely to reflect the outcome of work performed on original items. In the event that a (preliminary) assessment is done, the resulting opinion must be expressed in a manner that reflects those limitations or qualifications. 

Whether or not that will suffice for the intended purpose is something the client must decide.

Can you decipher obliterated writings?

The rate of success depends on several factors, but, yes, often it is possible to decipher an obliteration of some information on a document.

An “obliterated writing”, or ‘obliteration’, involves some entry or information covered or obscured by some other material—ink from the same or a different pen/marker, white-out material, paint, etc. The obliteration is done in an attempt to hide or mask the original information, for either legitimate or illegitimate reasons.

There are various methods that can be used to decipher original information.  These include microscopic examination, the application of special lighting and filters (spectral examination), or various other visualization methods.

As noted above, many factors come into play in the decipherment process with success depending upon the type of instrument(s) or obliterating material involved, the nature of the substrate, the process used for the obliteration and the degree to which it is done. As a result, there are times when it will be impossible to decipher (all of) the original entry.

Can you work with photocopied or faxed documents?

Yes, a forensic document examiner can work with a photocopied document, facsimile output, or other types of reproduction such as photographs.1 There are a couple of different situations where this might be a consideration.

First, some aspect of the reproduction itself may be in question. For example, the issue at hand may pertain to the manner of production, origin or source of a copy:

  • is the document a copy of a particular original document?
  • was the document (i.e., copy) produced on a particular machine?
  • was the document (i.e., copy) produced on or about a specific purported date?
  • what type of device was used to produce the document (i.e., reproduction)?
  • has the document (i.e., copy) been altered, relative to the source document?
  • is this document an original or a reproduction? (yes, this can be an issue)

In these types of situations the document itself is the focus of the examination or comparison. Hence, the fact it is a reproduction should not limit the examination or be a concern.

Second, the issue may involve a comparison between questioned and known/exemplar samples to assess potential source. In this situation, original documents are always better, if they are available.

There will be times when a reproduction is the only copy available. In those instances a meaningful examination may still be possible; however, the reproduced nature of the item may place some limitation on the examination. The critical issue is the quality of reproduction and poor quality copies can be a significant limiting factor. Poor quality reproductions simply do not display all of the features the examiner must assess. That applies whether the issue relates to handwriting (e.g., questions about authorship) or machine printing (e.g., questions about source).

In particular, and as noted above, if the issue relates to authorship of handwriting or a signature, then it is always best to have the original document, rather than any reproduction.2

Another factor that arises with a reproduction is the possibility that some element appearing in the document (e.g., writing or a signature) may have been ‘inserted’ into a document via a “cut-and-paste” process, either through electronic/digital or manual means. Such activities can be difficult to detect or assess when working with a copy.

In summary, while a reproduction may place limits on certain types of examination it does not preclude an evaluation and assessment in every situation.  Always discuss the matter with the examiner.

Can examinations be done away from the lab?

Yes, in select circumstances a ‘remote’ examination may be done. By ‘remote’ I mean at some location other than in my personal laboratory.1 However, it is important to understand up-front that it is always preferable to undertake examinations in a proper laboratory setting where appropriate equipment is available, proper examination conditions are assured, and there are fewer time constraints as a rule.

If the material can be submitted for examination at the lab, it is always a better choice. 

The most common justification for a remote examination is to gain access to documents that would be otherwise inaccessible.2 For example, some items are only available at a lawyer’s office, at a courthouse (if already presented into evidence or being held there for some other reason), or at another examiner’s laboratory. Many institutions, for a variety of reasons, but often relating to security of the items, do not wish to release original documents to anyone outside their control. Instead, they will offer copies, sometimes certified and sometimes not. As noted elsewhere, working with reproductions is always less than ideal and may result in an inconclusive opinion simply because the information provided by the copies is too limited.

To address such issues a remote examination may be proposed. The client must understand that remote examinations are not ideal and may be an expensive proposition. Certain types of analyses or examination are possible using portable equipment with only limited or minimal impact on the outcome; other types of analyses will be affected and still others may be entirely precluded. 

To minimize problems during a remote examination, it is important to arrange for a private, quiet room away from other activities. That room should have regular (and reliable) electrical supply, good lighting, a comfortable chair, and a solid table or desk large enough to hold the items and equipment to be used. 

Beyond this, sufficient time must be provided. Note that the time required for an examination depends on many factors. However, any time an examiner is ‘rushed’, they will have to adjust the examination accordingly and this may have a negative impact on the end result.

Finally, remote examinations usually require travel as well as appropriate accommodations and meals for the duration of any stay. Such costs can add considerably to the final tally for the service. 

To determine whether or not a remote examination is warranted in your case, and for an estimate of the costs involved, please contact us to discuss the matter in detail.

What is a specimen/exemplar?

The words ‘known’, ‘exemplar’, ‘specimen’ are essentially equivalent and used to describe materials or samples of ‘proven’ provenance or origin. There are many things that can be determined from questioned material entirely on its own, but questions relating to any source attribution require samples of a ‘proven’ nature, (i.e., known, specimen, or exemplar material) for comparison purposes. 

Specimen samples must be obtained by the client in most situations. Along with the questioned sample they would then be provided to the examiner. 

Obtaining appropriate and adequate specimen samples is critical to an effective examination. Please contact the examiner to discuss the collection and submission of such material PRIOR to obtaining them. 

There are two main types of specimen samples that may be considered: ‘collected’ and ‘request’. Pros and cons of each are discussed below:

Collected samples are exemplars produced in the course of routine day-to-day activities by the suspect individual or device. 

The first advantage of collected samples is they are representative of the normal, routine behaviour of the individual/device and are not (likely) to be disguised or distorted in some way. This refers to any sample that was produced in the course of daily business or routine, without consideration for later examination. Another advantage is that such samples may be historical in nature (i.e,, having been produced on some date in the past) and representative of the behaviour at that time (e.g., handwriting or signature samples for a deceased person). Yet another advantage is the potential to locate exemplars under specific conditions or circumstances that cannot be replicated at the present time. On the ‘negative’ side of things, collected samples may not be completely comparable to the questioned samples in terms of the precise conditions or content of the material in question. While the samples may represent the individual/device’s ‘habitual’ behaviour at the time of production, the samples will not help if the questioned material is of a different type, nature, or content. The biggest ‘negative’ for collected samples is proof of source. It is important that some ‘proof’ of the source of the sample be possible. This can be achieved in many ways but it something the client needs to consider; it cannot be done by the examiner.

Request samples  are those produced at the request of the investigator (or client) and for the express purpose of being examined. The key advantage of these samples is that they can be customized to provide comparability to the questioned samples in terms of content, nature, and (sometimes) conditions. As such, request samples often provide the best direct comparability to questioned samples. Proof of source is also a non-issue as it can be given by the person obtaining the samples. On the ‘negative’ side of things, request samples may not be available — either because the individual refuses to provide any, or they are not able to do so (i.e., a person has passed away or the device is not longer in-service). In addition, samples that are not contemporaneous may not display the same features/habits simply due to changes over time. Finally, request samples may not be able to replicate every aspect of the original conditions. 

Ultimately, collected and request samples are complementary to one another. So an ideal submission will have both types. 

One last note:  in some situations it may be possible to have the examiner obtain the specimen ‘request’ samples from a suspect, or to assist in the process. Doing so would generally require a ‘remote’ visit. If this is desired, please discuss the matter beforehand with the examiner. 

Related FAQs:

How long does an examination take?

The time required for a case depends on the number of items involved, as well as what needs to be done (ie., the number of requests made and the number of comparisons or examinations to be done). However, assuming the case isn’t too large and the quality of samples is reasonable, turnaround times are usually within 5-10 business days from receipt of evidence to return of evidence with a verbal report of findings. Written report will generally take a few more days. Complex matters, such as medical record reviews or examinations involving multiple potential writers, will require additional time, sometimes considerably more. If your samples have limitations it may be necessary to obtain more or better items in which case the time frame will extend. An estimate for the expected completion date will be provided once a case has been submitted and reviewed.