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Forensic Magazine® | Articles | All the Clues That's Fit to Print

All the Clues That's Fit to Print

Douglas Page
Winter 2004

A unique study performed by the U.S. Secret Service shows that printers and copiers actually leave
reproducible physical impressions on paper which can be detected using a technology known as
electrostatic detection. First marketed by Foster and Freeman, Ltd., (U.K.) as the electrostatic
detection apparatus (ESDA), ESDA provides forensic document examiners with a reliable way to
identify indentations on documents.

The Secret Service study (J Forensic Sci, May 2004, Vol. 49, No. 3) examined the feasibility of using
ESDA to identify individual characteristics that can be used to associate a document in question with a
specific office machine.

“ The findings of this study have been promising based on observations and theory,” said Gerry
LaPorte, a forensic scientist in the Secret Service's Forensic Services Division. “Indeed, it has been
shown that printers and copiers can impart reproducible physical impressions on paper which are
detectable using ESDA.”

The study noted that “documents produced on office printers and copiers are often associated with a
variety of crimes involving counterfeit identification documents, counterfeit financial obligations (e.g.
currency and business checks), threatening letters, contracts, wills, financial accounts, and criminal

“Forensic document examiners now have another use for the ESDA/EDD and another technique to
use in identifying a particular printer,” said Arizona forensic document examiner Sandra Ramsey
Lines, editor of the Journal of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners.

Paper Chase

The LaPorte study proposed to answer five questions:

● Do printers and/or copiers impart physical impressions on documents?

● If physical impressions are present, are they detectable using ESDA?
● Are the impressions reproducible?
● Can the detectable impressions be used as class characteristics? (1 of 3)6/12/2009 1:54:39 PM

Forensic Magazine® | Articles | All the Clues That's Fit to Print

● Can individual characteristics be determined using this methodology?

Traditionally, ESDA is used to detect indented impressions of handwriting on paper. The LaPorte
study was to determine whether impressions left by printer and copier hardware are likewise visible.

Prior to performing an ESDA, LaPorte fed blank sheets of paper dusted with black magnetic powder
through the printers so places where the machine contacted the paper could be easily seen.

In the study, LaPorte “observed impressions made by parts of the feeding mechanism (e.g. roller
wheels and picker bars) on the front and back of the paper. Moreover, the markings on the front were
different than those on the back, indicating the importance of performing ESDA examination on both
side of a questioned document.”

“The presence of fine striations and minutiae is essential to the assessment,” LaPorte’s paper stated.
“It therefore cannot be emphasized enough that minimal, careful handling of documents is necessary
since it is quite easy to impart artifact impressions that are detectable following an ESDA

LaPorte stressed the need for familiarization with the hardware and an understanding of the
components. For example, three Epson Stylus Color printers (models 600, 740, and 900) are
constructed on the same platform, but there are additional star wheels on the different models.
Contact does not always occur between the paper and the star wheel. Instead, physical contact is
dependent on whether the tray is pulled out to catch the paper, he noted.

“Identification of class characteristics on documents can be valuable information to corroborate and

support additional investigative findings, but identifying individual characteristics is tremendously more
substantive,” LaPorte stated in his paper. “Individual characteristics found on documents produced
from a printing system will allow the forensic examiner to definitively link two or more questioned
documents to each other or to a suspect office machine.”

“Computer printers have replaced typewriters in today’s world, so being able to link computer printers
to a document generated by a laser printer or inkjet would give valuable assistance to a criminal
investigation,” said Howard Seiden, a questioned document examiner in the Broward (County)
Sheriff's Office, Fort Lauderdale, FL. “This paper gives a new direction to the examination of computer
printers that document examiners have written off as too generic.”

Seiden said more could eventually be done to expand the number of printers and suggested that a
database could be compiled to provide the document examiner a guide to compare ESDA
characteristics of various printers or photocopiers.

Common Touch

There are numerous areas within a printer or photocopier that can physically touch the paper causing
disturbances that are detectable by ESDA, although it may not always be obvious what specific
source in the printer is creating the detectable markings. It may therefore be necessary to physically (2 of 3)6/12/2009 1:54:39 PM

Forensic Magazine® | Articles | All the Clues That's Fit to Print

examine the printer after the document was created to evaluate the ESDA results. Document
examiners greeted LaPorte's intriguing use for ESDA with cautious approval. “While further studies
should be pursued, perhaps the present techniques will better serve in elimination purposes,” said Jim
Blanco, a San Francisco forensic document examiner.

Blanco advised caution, however. Suppose you have a situation where a document has been printed,
say, by an HP LaserJet 1100, then signed and sent off into commerce. Later, this same document
may be put through a copy machine with an automatic feeder which could add that particular copy
machine's impressions to the document where the grabbing elements/rollers of the copier press and
track upon the paper.

If, in such a case, the original HP 1100 printer were to leave very faint marks so that the marks
themselves may not reveal during an ESDA exam, yet the grabber/feeder/rolling element of the
automatic copier would leave prominent marks, a questioned document examiner conducting
examinations of these latent marks may be led down the wrong road of identification or elimination of
perhaps the very machine that really created the document, Blanco said.
Yellow Flags

There are other caveats. LaPorte offered a number of procedural and interpretive areas that
examiners should consider. These include the fact that even documents that are produced on the
same machine may have additional physical markings. For example, documents may have been
processed in a mail facility where additional rollers or wheels have left markings. Differences in paper
or the manufacturing of the hardware could also be the cause of differences. Additionally, an original
equipment manufacturer will produce machines for a number of vendors. These may produce the
same markings but have a different brand name.

The method outlined in LaPorte’s study enhances the methods a document examiner has at his
disposal, but does not replace existing chemical analysis. As LaPorte’s study notes, chemical
examination of inks and toners is still an invaluable tool for comparing questioned documents.
Examiners should consider using LaPorte’s method of physical examination to corroborate these ink

Douglas Page is a Science/Medical Writer and editor. He can be reached at douglaspage@earthlink.


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