Judge Steers Clear of Texas Fingerprint Case

     (CN) – A federal judge in Dallas said state courts are better suited to rule on a lawsuit alleging the misuse of a Texas crime scene investigator’s fingerprints.

     U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater refused to exercise jurisdiction over crime scene investigator Daniel Rhode’s claim that Arlington, Texas, violated the Texas Tort Claims Act when, as part of a break-in investigation, one of its police officers submitted fingerprints that he had filched from Rhodes, his crime scene investigation teacher.
     Rhodes taught a class in which students learned how to collect fingerprints. One of his students, Tibor Prince, “lifted Rhodes’s fingerprints from a coffee bottle and mounted them on an index card,” according to the ruling.
     Prince then put the card in his fingerprint case.
     He later mistakenly turned in Rhodes’ fingerprints as part of a burglary investigation, the ruling states.
     Arlington police had to investigate Rhodes for breaking into the apartment, though one officer allegedly “informed Rhodes that he did not believe that Rhodes had committed the burglary,” according to the ruling.
     Rhodes was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, which eventually cleared him of any wrongdoing.
     He sued the city, Prince and four officers over the incident. The bulk of his claims and appeals were dismissed, leaving only his claim that the city had violated the Texas Tort Claims Act.
     Judge Fitzwater declined to exercise his discretionary jurisdiction over the remaining claim, explaining that the case involved the sticky state-law question of “tangible personal property.”
     Questions of whether the fingerprint card was tangible personal property, which would mean the city had violated the Texas Tort Claims Act, and whether the fingerprints were “information contained on tangible personal property,” which would mean the city could claim governmental immunity, were too “unsettled” for a federal court to decide, Fitzwater wrote.
     Exercising jurisdiction would require him “to decide novel and complex issue of Texas law of a type that has confounded Texas courts,” he concluded.
     Fitzwater dismissed Rhodes’ claim, but gave him the option to re-file.

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