Footprints as Forensic Evidence: A Critical Analysis
Written by Priyangi Mohi [i] and Om Shankar Kiradoo [ii]
[i] [ii] Fourth Year students, B.A.LLB. Institute of Law, Nirma University.
Source: Research Gate
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
All physical objects that can be observed by the five human senses and examined for their relation to the incidents that happened at a crime scene are part of forensic evidence. Any physical object may serve as a source of knowledge to aid the investigator in recreating the incidents and one of the pieces of forensic evidence is Footprints. Footprints are a source of forensic evidence as it is difficult to avoid leaving behind any such impressions at the crime scene. Footprints like fingerprints are also unique because of the differences in pattern and ridges which can be used for identification. Biological evidence of the person like stature, gender, gait, or presence of any deformity can be known by looking at the footprint. Shoe prints are also unique because every shoe has different cuts, ridges, and other associated signs of wear. Through footprint analysis, even the number of culprits present at the crime scene, the activities that they have taken up like dragging, carrying heavy items, speed, direction, and the possible time frame taken can be ascertained.
Footprints evidence can be used to establish a strong link between the crime scene and the accused as happened in the case of Commonwealth v. Bartolini. In this case, a footprint was produced by the prosecution which was found on the bathroom floor where the murder was committed which proved to be identical with the suspect’s footprint recorded at the police station. The court went on stating that there is ample evidence which proves that footprints remain constant like fingerprints and produces reliable and adequate means of identification of accused.
In India, a large segment of population walks barefooted which increases the chance of deposition of footprints at the crime scene, as criminals avoid unwanted sound during the commission of the crime and do not want to camouflage their presence which makes footprints an important set of evidence.
Legal aspect and law regulating Footprint Evidence
The legislative framework has permitted that footprint as evidence can be taken from the accused. Under section 51 of Cr.PC it has been stated that police can take the accused’s shoes into custody as evidence in order to compare it with the marks present at the crime scene. The Identification of Prisoners Act also allows taking measurements of a person who is arrested for committing an offense for which the punishment is more than one year and the measurement under this section is referred to footprints and fingerprints. Under section 5 of the act mentioned above, the magistrate has been given the power to direct any person to submit his footprints for fulfilling the procedure under Cr.PC or for any further investigation. And if any person refuses to comply with such orders then he would commit an offense under section 186 of IPC.
However, there is no such provision related to footprints in the Indian Evidence Act and no power has been granted to court at the trial stage. Section 73 of Indian Evidence Act only mentions fingerprints and not footprints.
In the case of Abdul Razak Murtaza Dafadar v. State of Maharashtra, the court has observed that in construing words like arts or science, a static word cannot be tenable as expert testimony on the subject matter like that of footprints and marks are now admissible. Furthermore, in the case of Sunder and others v. State of Rajasthan, the court has looked into the evidence of footprints positively and identified their importance provided if all the required precautions are taken at the time when such evidences were collected, when molds were made and when they were analyzed.
Footprints and Right against Self Incrimination
It is provided under section 51 of the Criminal Procedure Code that the police can search an arrested person and can keep all the articles except the necessary wearing apparel into safe custody which makes it clear that shoes of the accused can be taken into custody and there is no violation of Article 20(3) of Indian Constitution.
Reinstating the same provision, the Supreme Court in the case of, State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors. v. Sunil and Ors. ruled that directing any person to give footprints is not against the right of self-incrimination.
Impression evidence is used for the purpose of identification of a person and it would not amount to being a witness against oneself. And further, the court also added that a person not complying with the direction may give inference to the court that he is the accused.
Issue of Admissibility of the evidence
Like other pieces of evidence in forensic science, footprints alone cannot prove that a suspect has committed a crime; it means that it is not conclusive evidence. It only provides a link to show the presence of suspect or the suspect has come in contact with the victim but they fail in providing under which circumstance and when the link was formulated.
The legislative framework is equipped to take into account footprints under the domain of forensic evidence but the evidentiary value of the same is restricted as they are circumstantial and weak in nature.
The evidence of footprints is not considered very reliable to conclusively prove the guilt of the person. In the case of State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors. v. Sunil and Ors., it has been stated that an accused cannot be convicted solely on the basis of footprints or his refusal to comply with the direction of submitting footprints.
In the case of Mohm. Aman v. State of Rajasthan, it was held that science of identification of footprints is not a well-established principle or science. If in any case evidence is found to be satisfactory then it might be utilized to reinforce the conclusions which have already been arrived at on the basis of other evidences. At this juncture it is important to note that in the case of Ram Singh and others v. State of Rajasthan and others, it has been ruled by the Court that evidentiary value of footprints are not well-established principle and in absence of other strong and reliable evidence that points towards the accused’s identification then footprint evidence cannot be used in order to conclusively prove any finding and the same position had been reiterated many times that the evidence of footprints are not a reliable source of evidence.
Moreover, in the case of Sunder and others v. State of Rajasthan, the court held that it needs to be assured that the footprints collected are genuine and the whole procedure has been followed and no tampering has been done at any stage. Following it judges would also look up to other reliable evidence and circumstantial evidence and discern whether all such evidence points towards the guilt of the accused or a complete chain of evidence has been built up which gives some conclusive finding.
Footprints evidence is used as circumstantial evidence and thus cannot alone determine the guilt of a person like fingerprints or DNA evidence.
Footprints evidence are in most of the cases seen in the light of other evidences and their reliability are dependent on the direction in which it is pointing, meaning to say that if all the evidences are pointing towards a single person and footprint evidences also point toward the same person then such evidence would be accepted as reliable but if it proves contrary then it may be disregarded or same importance may not be attached to those evidences.
Critical Analysis of Footprint Evidences
The aim of criminal law is to find out the actual criminal and prevent any erroneous convictions of innocent people. The Legal system generally relies on the evidence while supporting the case. Individualization forensic evidence aims to be scientific in nature both at the time of recovery and analysis. If forensic evidence is based upon reliable scientific methodology it paves the way for accuracy in the analysis of evidence or report finding. It is very important for any forensic evidence to rely on a scientific test which is objective in nature but footprint evidence lacks any scientific approach and thus it fails in meeting the demand of law..
The footprint analysis involves a procedure where an object that is known like a shoe is compared with the partial or complete impression that was taken from the crime scene. Then the expert has to assess whether the impression found on the crime scene and known object has the same source or not. The whole procedure is done in a stepwise manner, first is the comparison of class characteristics and second is the identification of the characteristics.
The whole procedure lacks the appropriate empirical studies for supporting the association of shoeprint with the known print done on the basis of identifying marks. It is very ambiguous to find out the accuracy of the examiner who identifies the features that are commonly present in both the impression and the shoe. It is difficult to find their range of error in distinguishing between the same features and assigning a probative value on such evidence is the toughest.
Footprint evidence is based upon the sense of probabilities which comes from experience. The experts may be in many cases true but it is very difficult to cancel out the biases which naturally come while making any experience based judgment and mostly in such cases where any feedback mechanism is absent to evaluate such erroneous judgement.
The problem increases when experts have to deal with unique impression evidence. It is true that thousands of judgments made by an expert develops a sense of judgment and experience but the fact still remains the same that there is no scientific data on the basis of which degree of similarity to come on a result can be observed.
The report given by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has made a conclusion that the fundamental issue is not of consistency but it is accuracy. PCAST also states that there is no empirical study that can conclusively prove or lay down foundational validity of any analysis for associating shoe prints on the basis of specific identifying marks. Conclusion of footprint evidence is neither supported by any meaningful evidence nor has its accuracy been estimated. The trail concludes that footprint evidence is not scientifically valid.
Another major challenge that can be listed down is that only a limited number of databases exist which can be used while classifying the pattern of footwear outsole. There are insufficient studies on the manufacturing characteristics or about the frequency of the outsole pattern. For instance the shoe manufacturer neither provides the details about the number of shoes existing with a particular design nor do they tell about the shoes sold of one particular design. Considering the fact that there are a number of counterfeit shoes in the market which are a replication of the design of the outsoles which are belonging to popular brands. Another problem is that one is not aware of the time for which a person keeps that pair of shoes and all the factors in combinations makes it impossible to estimate the number of shoes belonging to a particular model existing among the population at a time.
Suggestions and Conclusion
The footprint evidence has been overlooked and has been considered as weak evidence due to many reasons. Major ones that can be laid down are that there is a lack of education and training in properly collecting, searching, and preserving the evidence of footprints, and secondly, the evidence has been misunderstood and overlooked. The reason behind the failure of footprint evidence in the area of solving crime can be listed down, firstly that people don’t believe that impression can be found after people have walked over the crime scene, and secondly, it may be due to incomplete searches of the scene by the investigating agencies, thirdly because of weather conditions and fourthly when the impression has been destroyed intentionally.
Examination of footprints relies mostly on the traditional comparison that is done by side by side ways method.
Eye tracker which is a scientific technology can be used to enhance footwear comparison. Eye tracker allows the examiner to track their own gaze while finding the similarities in question and known impression or evaluating the footprint evidence.
A heat map is constructed through the process which allows the examiner to find out the areas of emphasis.
Footprints as evidence can lead us in the journey of investigation. For it to be effective, it is very important that the most reliable method is used for the purposes of analysis and all the above mentioned issues and loopholes shall be resolved in order to give push to a scientific investigation and forensic science.
 Naples, V. & Miller, J., Making Tracks: The Forensic Analysis of Footprints and Footwear Impressions, 279(1) Anat Rec B New Anat 9, 9-15 (2004).
 Commonwealth v. Bartolini, 299 Mass. 503, 13 N.E.2d 382 (1939).
 The Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920 Act No. 33 of 1920 § 3.
 The Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920 Act No. 33 of 1920 § 5.
 The Indian Penal Code Act No. 45 of 1860 § 186.
 Abdul Razak Murtaza Dafadar v. State of Maharashtra, (1970) 1 SCR 551 (India).
 Sunder and others v. State of Rajasthan, 2015 (3) RLW 2007 (Raj.) (India).
 State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors. v. Sunil and Ors., AIR 2017 SC 2150 (India).
 Shoe Print Evidence, Officer.Com (Aug. 25, 2008), https://www.officer.com/home/article/10248671/shoe-print-evidence#:~:text=Like%20most%20all%20forensic%20evidence,circumstances%22%20that%20link%20was%20made.
 State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors. v. Sunil and Ors., AIR 2017 SC 2150 (India).
 Mohd. Aman, Babu Khan and Another v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SC 2960 (India).
 Ram Singh and others v. State of Rajasthan others, MANU/RH/1155/2015 (India).
 Supra note 06.
 Sarah Mai-Lin Reel, Development and Evaluation of a Valid and Reliable Footprint Measurement Approach in Forensic Identification 10 (The University of Leeds, 2012).
 U.S. v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 553-54 (1980).
 Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435, 446 (2013).
 Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006).
 U.S. v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1987).
 Hon. Bridget Mary McCormack, Scientific Evidence, The National Judicial College, https://www.judges.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Chapter3-SBBr.pdf.
 Dwane S. Hilderbrand, Footwear, The Missed Evidence, Scottsdale Police Crime Lab, https://www.crime-scene-investigator.net/footwear.html.
1. Hilderbrand, Dwane S., Footwear, The Missed Evidence, Scottsdale Police Crime Lab, https://www.crime-scene-investigator.net/footwear.html
2. McCormack, Bridget Mary, Scientific Evidence, The National Judicial College, https://www.judges.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Chapter3-SBBr.pdf.
3. Reel, Sarah Mai-Lin, Development and Evaluation of a Valid and Reliable Footprint Measurement Approach in Forensic Identification 10 (The University of Leeds, 2012).
4. Shoe Print Evidence, Officer.Com (Aug. 25, 2008), https://www.officer.com/home/article/10248671/shoe-print-evidence#:~:text=Like%20most%20all%20forensic%20evidence,circumstances%22%20that%20link%20was%20made.
5. Virginia, Naples & Jon, Miller, Making Tracks: The Forensic Analysis of Footprints And Footwear Impressions, 279(1) Anat Rec B New Anat 9, 9-15 (2004).