Frequently Asked Questions

What do "forensic science and "forensic document examination" mean?

How can forensic document examiners help attorneys and law enforcement officers?

What kind of education does it take to become a document examiner?

Has a competent document examiner received specialized training?

What do you mean when you say you "certify" document examiners?

Is graphology the same as forensic document examination?

Where can you find a qualified forensic document examiner?

How can I make sure my witness is really an expert?

 

What do the terms "forensic science and "forensic document examination" mean?

Forensic science is the application of various sciences to the law. The application of allied sciences and analytical techniques to questions concerning documents is termed forensic document examination. The examination of questioned documents consists of the analysis and comparison of questioned handwriting, hand printing, typewriting, commercial printing, photocopies, papers, inks, and other documentary evidence with known material in order to establish the authenticity of the contested material as well as the detection of alterations.

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How can forensic document examiners help attorneys and law enforcement officers?

Forensic document examiners (FDEs) help lawyers by examining and offering written opinions on a variety of disputed document problems including: wills, deeds, medical records, income tax records, time sheets, contracts, loan agreements, election petitions, checks, and anonymous letters.

Lawyers benefit from an FDEs specialized knowledge of literature in the questioned document field. This knowledge will assist lawyers in preparing meaningful direct examination questions for their own experts and cross-examination questions for opposing experts.   

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What kind of education does it take to become a document examiner?

There is no college degree or major in forensic document examination. The majority of FDEs have undergraduate or master's degrees, however. Most of the recognized regional and national forensic science organizations require a baccalaureate degree as a condition of membership.   

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Has a competent document examiner received specialized training?

Like most forensic disciplines, on-the-job specialized training from experienced examiners is the only way to acquire expertise. No substitute exists for a legitimate structured training program. Forensic document examination does not lend itself to autodidactic learning or to correspondence courses.

The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) is recognized by and was originally sponsored by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and is sponsored by the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners,the Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners, the Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners, and the Canadian Society of Forensic Sciences. The minimum requirement established by the ABFDE for training in forensic document examination is a two-year apprenticeship in a recognized forensic laboratory or with an examiner in private practice who has previously received proper training. 

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What do you mean when you say you "certify" document examiners?

No federal licensing exists for FDEs. To recognize qualified FDEs in government laboratories and private practice and to promote the advancement of forensic science, the ABFDE was established in 1977 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. In United States v. Buck, 1987 WL 19300 (U.S. Dist. Ct. S.D.N.Y.) the court recognized the existence of the ABFDE as a certifying body for forensic document examiners in denying a motion which claimed handwriting comparisons were unreliable. By referring to the ABFDE, if was satisfied "that professional scientific knowledge in the subject area exists and is sufficiently reliable to be of assistance to the jury." 

Minimum qualifications for ABFDE certification are: 

Baccalaureate degree

Full-time training program in a recognized document laboratory

Full-time practice of forensic document examination

Anyone selecting an FDE should beware of sound-alike organizations that claim to have their own certification. Job announcements from federal and state laboratories that hire FDEs consistently include certification by ABFDE or eligibility to be certified by ABFDE as a required or desired qualification. No recent job announcement has acknowledged another certifying board for FDEs. 

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Is graphology the same as forensic document examination?

Graphology or graphoanalysis attempts to predict character traits from handwriting examination. Forensic document examination involves the analysis and comparison of questioned documents with known material in order to identify, whenever possible, the author or origin of the questioned document. Some graphologists call themselves handwriting analysts or document examiners and are therefore confused with FDEs. In U.S. v. Bourgeois 950 F 2d 980 (5th Cir. 1992), the court rejected the testimony of a proffered handwriting examiner, in part, because his training was completed through a correspondence school and strongly emphasized graphoanalysis. But it also pointed out that the witness was not certified by the ABFDE. 

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Where can you find a qualified forensic document examiner?

Attorneys should search for FDEs who are active members in the recognized national and/or regional forensic science organizations. The following is a list of such organizations.

1. American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) (Questioned Document Section) 
phone: (719) 636-1100

2. American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE
phone: (312) 558-1684

3. American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE
phone: (713) 784-9537

4. Midwestern Association of Forensic Sciences (MAFS) 
phone:  (517) 336-6628, Larry Olson, Questioned Document Section Coordinator  

5. Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SWAFDE), 
Membership Chairman, J. Donald Vacca, phone: (303) 674-1791

6. Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists (MAAFS) 
phone: (703) 640-1113, President-elect, Lawrence Presley

7. Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SAFDE) 
phone: (404) 417-2706 , Carl McClary

8. Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists (NEAFS) 
Det. Sgt. Dennis J. Ryan, phone: (516) 573-7865

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How can I make sure my witness is really an expert?

Certifications and credentials should be carefully examined in your expert witness selections. Do they have the proper training, education, professional memberships, certification, and necessary experience) Attorneys should be aware that persons who advertise as handwriting analysts may be self-trained or trained as graphologists. Groups outside of the mainstream forensic science organizations abound. 

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