Paint as Forensic Evidence: Purpose, Collection & Preservation

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  • 0:04 Paint as Forensic Evidence
  • 2:03 Collecting Paint Evidence
  • 3:17 Analyzing Paint Evidence
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Paint can be important evidence in criminal investigations. This lesson will review the significance of paint as forensic evidence and discuss how it can be collected and preserved for forensic examination.

Paint as Forensic Evidence

David is on his daily ten-mile bike ride. It's Sunday, and there is not much traffic to speak of, so David startles slightly when he hears a car approaching behind him. The car appears to be speeding, and as it attempts to pass David, the vehicle clips David's back tire and sends him flying over the handle bars and onto the road. The vehicle takes off without stopping. Another car pulls up a few minutes later and calls 9-1-1.

As rescue workers rush David to the hospital in critical condition, law enforcement arrives and starts the investigation. One of the officers notices white paint on David's blue bicycle frame and assumes the paint belongs to the vehicle that hit him. The forensics team is called in to collect the paint evidence and an intensive investigation is launched.

When most of us think about paint, we think about putting colors on our walls or choosing a paint color for our vehicles. However, paint can be powerful forensic evidence, or evidence that can be utilized to solve crimes. Like glass, fibers, and hair, paint is considered to be trace evidence. In other words, it is evidence that is transferred from a main source to the scene of a crime. In our opening example, the paint transferred from the car to David's bicycle is evidence, giving investigators a good immediate clue as to the color of the car they're looking for.

Paint trace evidence is especially relevant in cases where automobiles are involved, but it can also be useful in other cases. For example, a burglar using a crow bar may leave paint markings behind on the frame of a door or window which can be collected and analyzed as evidence. This can tell investigators details about the color of the crow bar that was used, so they can have a better idea as to what type of crow bar was used to commit the crime. Paint evidence can also tell us what type of paint investigators need to be looking for. The characteristics of nail polish, for example, are very different than those of paint used on automobiles or house paint.

Collecting Paint Evidence

In order to collect and preserve paint evidence, it is important to start with securing the scene of the crime. Prior to the collection of a paint sample, the area containing the sample should be photographed without disrupting the evidence. Any disruption to the crime scene area could potentially contaminate the paint evidence. Investigators can then proceed to collect the paint sample, typically by carefully scraping or peeling the paint from the surface area where it was located. Tools such as tweezers might be used during the collection process.

Until the paint evidence can be forensically examined, it should be carefully preserved so that it remains unaltered while it is transferred from the crime scene to the laboratory. All paint samples should be kept in separate containers. If paint evidence is found on clothing, it should not be removed. Rather, the clothing should be rolled up in paper and sent to the lab.

Once in the lab, the examination will begin. Investigators will look for several things, such as the edges of the paint sample, and whether or not there are multiple layers of paint present beyond the surface layer. In our example story, this could help police determine if the culprit's car is newer or older, as a paint chip from a car that has been painted several times over the years is likely to have multiple paint layers.

Analyzing Paint Evidence

The analysis of paint evidence takes place in a forensics laboratory with specialized equipment. The following are some methods by which paint can be forensically analyzed:

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