What is a Forensic Document Examiner

Forensic document examiners are an essential part of the success of the forensic science community. Their main responsibility is examining written, typed, or printed documents using a scientific methodology and equipment.

Their essential responsibilities go beyond evaluating different documents. They prepare demonstrative exhibits, write expert reports, and state their opinions regarding the documents which are being analyzed. This means they testify in court proceedings if the case goes to trial.

Their job description also includes the following:

  • Examining signatures to determine if they have been forged or altered
  • Comparing handwriting similarities and differences to determine the source of the handwriting from potential suspects.
  • Inspecting printed documents to determine the type of printing processes
  • Examining documents that may have been destroyed or altered
  • Comparing different varieties of paper and writing instruments
  • Examining documents for indented writing
  • Using alternate light sources to determine non-destructive ink discrimination, alterations, or enhancements that have been made to the documents

Where Are They Located?

Forensic document examiners can be found in local, state, and federal crime laboratories. Federal and State Laboratories offer training to select individuals in the analysis, comparison, and evaluation of questioned documents.

In the United States, several federal laboratories employ forensic document examiners:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • S. Secret Service
  • Army Crime Lab
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • Postal Inspection Service
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

They can also be found in private practice assisting in  civil cases.

What is a ‘Questioned Document’ Examination?

As a method, an examination of a ‘questioned document’ follows standard methodology which is recognized in a court of law. The questioned document is scrutinized to discover facts about it. Using scientific equipment and processes, a questioned document is analyzed to determine origin or authenticity.

Forensic Document Examiners Versus Graphologists

Forensic document examiners are not the same as graphologists, although many people confuse the two professions. Graphologists analyze an individual’s personality through their handwriting alone. Forensic document examiners are highly skilled individuals who cover both handwriting analysis and the full aspects of document examination: determining printing process, obliterated writing, indentations and much more.

Types of Evidence

There are different types of evidence examined by a forensic document examiner including contracts, loan and banking documents, wills, deeds, checks and many others. It is imperative for a forensic document examiner to excel in analyzing all forms of documentary evidence to better serve the clients that hire them.

Handwritten Evidence

Most forensic document examiners analyze handwritten evidence. Signatures are the most common form of evidence that needs to be analyzed. Specifically, the court usually questions the authorship and authenticity of a signature or written letter. Other handwritten evidence includes wills, contracts, and deeds.

Forensic document examiners also examine other vital documents, such as medical charts, to determine authorship of handwritten entries or dating questions concerning when an entry was produced. They also compare questioned handwriting to known suspect(s), on anonymous correspondence, timesheets, checks, and tax returns.

Typed Evidence

A document examiner may also assist with a questioned document that was produced using a typewriter. An expert examiner may be able to identify which model of the typewriter was used to create the document in question. Some typewriters develop a unique set of characteristics that help the forensic document examiner identify which typewriter produced the typewritten text. Other examinations include identifying the font type, ink, and ribbons.

Forensic document examiners can also identify if any alterations and erasures were observed on the typewritten document.

Other Aspects Analyzed

Not only does a forensic document examiner analyze handwriting, but they also perform non-destructive testing on ink samples to determine if the same or different ink was used to prepare a document.
For example, an examiner may try to see if there were certain words added or changed in the said document after the document was written. They can also identify whether a fabric or film ribbon was used to prepared a typewritten document.

Another aspect of a forensic document examiner’s job includes the analysis of the paper used to write the document. A watermark in the paper may determine a date when the paper was manufactured and the company that produced it.

Forensic document examiners analyze the paper for indented writing. These are indentations that may not be visible to the eye but are transferred through the pressure of writing instrument on sheets of paper underneath where the writing was performed. This type of evidence lends investigative assistance or help determine the sequence of entries.

Becoming a Forensic Document Examiner

Becoming a forensic document examiner requires the necessary training and skills to aid in court cases.

To become an examiner, a bachelor’s degree is needed in forensic science or a program that is similar. This provides the individual with a background in forensics and the criminal justice system.

The training of the examiner covers all facets of documentary evidence, practical exercises, laboratory exercises, reading essential textbooks in the field, completing oral and written boards and participating in moot court exercises.

Training to become a forensic document examiner takes a minimum of two-years full time in an accredited laboratory.