Landmark Legal Opinions - Questioned Documents - Norwitch Document Laboratory
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Landmark Legal Opinions

 

The following is a brief compilation of precedent setting court rulings.  Decisions involving the admissibility of handwriting in general have been left out, since that matter was laid to rest in 1887 when in Bell vs. Brewster, the Supreme Court recognized the importance of handwriting as an identification process.  The first group of opinions specifically concern the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments as they relate to handwriting exemplars.  The last rulings concern eyewitness vs. expert testimony.  The reader is cautioned that the following are very brief interpretations.  It is strongly suggested that if any of the following are to be used in legal proceedings they should be further researched.

 

Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 86 S CT. 1826 (1966)

Schmerber maintained that a blood specimen taken from him non-voluntarily to determine the amount of alcohol in his blood was a violation of his privilege against self-incrimination.  While the Court reiterated that the Fifth Amendment provides protection against an individual being compelled to testify against himself, a blood specimen was not testimony.  In addition, the Court stated that the Fifth Amendment offers no protection against compulsion to “submit to fingerprints, photographing, or measurements, to write or speak for identification.”  The Court relied upon an earlier decision, Holt v. U.S., 281 U.S. 245 (1910), where Holt was required to try on clothing found at the scene of a murder.  The fact that a blouse fit Holt was offered into evidence. (Sort of reminds you of O.J. doesn’t it)?

 

Lewis v. U. S., 382 F.2d 817 (1967)

This ruling states that the 5th Amendment is not violated by compelling a suspect to give a handwriting sample.  It further states that written words used as a handwriting sample, and not for their meaning, communicate nothing about knowledge of a crime.  “An exemplar is relevant only for the shape and direction of some lines and marks, which may identify the writer, as fingerprints and photographs do.”  Additionally, the taking of the exemplar in the absence of counsel does not violate the defendant’s 6th Amendment right. Even if the document is a confession, suppressed from evidence, it can still be used as a handwriting exemplar as long as the jury did not learn that the exemplar material was part of a confession.

 

GILBERT v. CALIFORNIA, 388 U.S. 263, 18 L.ED. 1178, 875. (1967)

The suspect in this case was arrested for a robbery in which a demand note was used. While being interviewed by the FBI the subject offered the agent handwriting specimens. From this the Court eventually answered two important questions: one, was there a violation of the Fifth Amendment against self-incriminating evidence and two, was the Defendant entitled to assistance of counsel during the exemplar session?

In answer to the first question, the Court said “A mere handwriting exemplar, in contrast to the content of what is written, like the voice or body itself, is an identifying physical characteristic outside it’s protection.”  The giving of handwriting exemplars does not provide self-incriminating evidence in violation of the 5th Amendment.

And in answer to the second question the court said, “The taking of exemplars was not a ‘critical’ stage of the criminal proceedings entitling petitioner to the assistance of counsel.” The defendant is not entitled to assistance of counsel during an exemplar session.

 

U.S. v. RUDY, 429 F.2d 993 (1970)

Rudy was charged with a kidnapping during which he purportedly mailed a ransom note. The government’s motion for the suspect to give exemplars was granted but in an effort to make a distinction between cursive writing and printing, Rudy stated that he was bound by GILBERT to provide exemplars but “Handprinting is susceptible to erroneous identification.”  The Appellate Court held that handprinting is within the rule of GILBERT.

 

U.S. v. IZZI, 427 F.2d 293 (1970)

Izzi was charged with Interstate Transportation Of Stolen Property.  Izzi went to Pennsylvania and using a fictitious name checked into a motel.  The motel registration card and the signature upon it became a significant government exhibit.  When the court order for exemplars was granted, Izzi did his part by disguising.  The government expert explained the differences that were present in the questioned and standard signatures as disguise.  The defense expert intimated that the differences were because a different writer had signed the card.  In his appeal, Izzi maintained that the government expert “emphasized the differences…suggesting that he (Izzi) had attempted to disguise…and by so doing had indicated consciousness of guilt.”  Izzi claimed this was an “implied admission wrung from him in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”  The appeals court said, “If GILBERT is not to be rendered meaningless, the government must be allowed to explain differences between exemplars and the signature sought to be identified, particularly where the defense points to these differences as evidence of non-common authorship.”

 

LEWIS v. U.S.

The giving of handwriting is equated with basic motor functions such as standing, sitting, and walking; each of which constitutes an expression of human will, but which communicate nothing regarding the individual’s knowledge of specific information.

 

U.S. v. MARA, 10CR. L. 2235 (1973)

In this case the subject was part of an investigation of thefts involving interstate shipments.  He was summoned as a grand jury witness twice and asked on each occasion to produce samples of his handwriting.  Mara refused to give exemplars on both occasions. His logic was that obtaining his handwriting exemplars constituted a seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The district court said, “A grand jury subpoena is not a ‘seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment,” and therefore not within the ‘probable cause’ limitations.  “Handwriting, like speech is repeatedly shown to the public, and there is no more expectation of privacy in the physical characteristics of a person’s script than there is in the tone of his voice.”

 

U.S. v. DIONISIO, (1973)

The Supreme Court ruled that handwriting is inherently “public” and thus not protected by the 4th Amendment.  The demand for exemplars does not infringe upon the expectation of privacy.

 

U.S. v. NIX, (1972)

In this matter the Judge instructed the jury that a defendant’s refusal to comply with court ordered exemplars can be inferred by the jury as a sign of guilt by the defendant.

 

U.S. v. ROGERS, (1973)

The Court ruled that the witness may be compelled to write questioned material for comparison by expert or jury.

 

U.S. v. McNEESE, (1973)

In this case, the Court said that the taking of exemplars does not violate a defendants constitutional rights.  Miranda warnings are not required.

 

Krugle’s Estate, (Fla. 2d DCA 1961) (134 Southern 2nd 860)

The court held that the opinion of the handwriting expert that the signature on a will was a forgery, was legally insufficient to overcome testimony of eyewitnesses to the signing of the will.

 

Dozier v. Smith, (Fla. 2d DCA 1984)

Where the testimony of handwriting experts is the only evidence of forgery, this testimony, standing alone, is insufficient to overcome the unimpeached testimony of several eyewitnesses as a matter of law.

 

Estate of Lunga, (Fla. 3d DCA 1973)

The testimony of handwriting experts, standing alone, is legally insufficient to overcome the testimony of eyewitnesses to the signing of a will.

Rev 5/12