Forensic document examiners, also often referred to as questioned document examiners, are forensic scientists who are responsible for using a number of scientific processes and methods for examining documents—whether written, typed, or printed—related to a crime scene investigation.
Forensic document examiners should not to be confused with graphologists, who are handwriting analysis practitioners that claim to be able to discern personality characteristics based on handwriting features. Graphology is largely viewed as a pseudoscience in the eyes of the scientific community.
Forensic document examiners, on the other hand, are skilled forensics scientists with a demonstrated expertise in applied questioned document examination. They are handwriting experts, as well as experts in other areas of document examination, including machine printing processes; and obliterated, indented and erased entries.
The most common type of questioned document examination involves identifying the authorship of a written letter. It is also common for forensic document examiners to determine if an item originated from the same source as a known item, determine when a document was produced, and decipher information on a document that has been erased, hidden, or obscured.
Forensic document examiners may perform the following:
- Examine documents for signs that they have been forged or altered
- Compare signatures and handwriting through handwriting analysis to determine the authorship of documents
- Examine typed documents and link them to specific machines or computers (printing process examinations)
- Decipher the contents of documents that have been partially destroyed or altered
- Compare fractured or cut-edge comparisons on a variety of surfaces, including paper and tape
- Examine incidents of indented writing
- Perform alternate light source examinations to determine ink discrimination, alterations, and/or enhancements
Forensic document examiners commonly work in local, state or federal crime labs. A number of these professionals work through private investigative companies, although this type of work is generally geared toward civil cases. Forensic document examiners are also often called to testify as experts in criminal cases.
In addition to many state, county and municipal crime labs that specialize in forensic document analysis, several federal agencies operate questioned document units. These federal QD units, as they are called, provide support to state and local law enforcement, as well as training on specialized technical topics concerning questioned document examination.
Among the federal agencies with QD units are the:
- Federal Bureau of Investigations
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement
- US Secret Service
- US Army Crime Lab
- Internal Revenue Service (Forensic Laboratory)
- US Postal Inspection Service
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Questioned Document Examination (QDE)
Questioned document examination (QDE) is an established scientific method of examining and comparing a questioned document using a set of known standards. Questioned document examination, which can stand up in a court of law, uses scientific processes and methods to establish the contents or origin of a document, or discover a relationship between two or more documents.
Within a crime scene investigation, questioned document examination may be used in instances of kidnapping, embezzlement, organized crime, homicide or any other crime that may involve a questioned document of any kind.
Forensic document examiners are often called upon to compare and/or examine handwriting. Handwriting identification involves studying hand-written text in order to be able to isolate natural variations and other characteristics. The handwriting identification process is often able to reveal the true author of a written document, or whether or not two or more documents were written by the same person.
Forensic document examiners who engage in handwriting identification must be aware of both class characteristics (characteristics common to a group, such as a foreign language, a professional group, or a writing system, for example) and individual characteristics (personal letters or letter combinations that are unique to a particular person).
How to Become a Forensic Document Examiner
Given the highly technical and scientific nature of the field of questioned document examination, forensic document examiners must gain formal education and training. A bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a similar program is a common course of study, as this type of degree provides forensic document examiners with a solid foundation in forensics and knowledge of the criminal justice system.
Formal training is crucial in this field, as is on-the-job training in the form of questioned document laboratory work. Lab work allows aspiring forensic document examiners to gain practical experience in a controlled setting.
Training programs for forensic document examiners generally last about two years. These programs involve studying the basic literature of the field and completing projects that teach the examination process, while at the same time demonstrating how questioned document examination fits into criminal and civil investigations of all kinds.
Salary Statistics for Forensic Document Examiners
Forensic document examiner salary ranges can be identified by reviewing recent job listings:
- Riverside County, California: $51,687-$73,000
- San Francisco, California: $85,904-$104,442
- Indiana State Police: $46,709
- Los Angeles, California: $76,416-$94,994
- Columbus, Ohio: $31,257-$51,283
Certification and Professional Resources for Forensic Document Examiners
The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners offers certification for forensic document examiners who possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and have completed a full-time training period of at least two years. Candidates must be able to successfully complete comprehensive written, practical and oral examinations based on document examination.
The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, which is the world’s oldest and largest organization for forensic document examination professionals, offers membership to forensic document examiners who want opportunities for continuing education, professional recognition, and networking events. Candidates for membership must undergo testing before being promoted from a provisional membership to a regular membership.