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 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.