Evidentiary Value of Tattoo

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(Unrelated Photo: Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

This post is written by Anjali Krishnan, a student of JEMTECH School of Law, IP University.

Identifying some notorious underworld gang members by their gang tattoo, or identifying a decomposed dead body or recognizing the accused of any crime because of his tattoo mark. Sounds like a typical scene from Scooby Doo show right?  But what if this was something that our legal system would think of using as part of the evidence for criminal cases?

Tattoo or inking is a form of body modification in design patterns where the ink or dye is inserted into the skin of a person. These dyes are either permanent or temporary which fades away with time. Tattooing is done to the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment. Today’s youth being a follower of new trends are very inclined towards getting a tattoo for themselves. From celebrities to normal people, many people are interested to get tattoos on their bodies.

A tattoo is a design that helps a person to express themselves better to society. This why it is normally assumed that a tattoo is something unique to that person. With so many people having  tattoo on their bodies, we can think of using tattoos for evidence in criminal law.  With the emergence of the new trend and era, people’s lifestyle has changed. So with these dynamically changing trends in the society, the court should also change their way of doing things and their definition of evidence. Using tattoos for evidence can be helpful for the prosecution and the judiciary as it can help them identify a person or a group as per the circumstance require. I would like to cite an example from one of my favorite TV shows BBC Sherlock wherein there is a gang named the Black Lotus and all of its members bear a tattoo on the lower side of one of their feet depicting a black lotus silhouette. The protagonist Sherlock Holmes notices this fact and uses this to link the culprit to the larger gang.

Tattoos are being used in many countries as an important piece of evidence during criminal trials. For example, in 2011 in California, a tattoo helped the prosecution in convicting a gang member who was responsible for shooting in a liquor shop. He had a chest tattoo that showed a very detailed murder scene at the liquor shop. The name of the liquor shop, parking lot, Christmas lights, etc. were drawn in the tattoo. The tattoo also depicted a chopper spraying bullets at the victim, the name of the gang to which he belonged was ‘the chopper’. The prosecution called this a ‘non-verbal confession’.

An acquittal turned into a conviction because a tattoo identification is very rare, but the law enforcement agents use these tattoos for identification. According to Clairissa Baren, an assistant professor of criminal justice, “What actually comes up in victims’ statement is that they sometimes can recognize a person by a tattoo more than they recognize what their faces looked like. It’s something you can latch onto,”.

As per the Indian Evidence Act,1872 section 9 of the code talks about facts necessary to explain or introduce a relevant fact. This section says that facts necessary to explain or introduce a fact in issue or relevant fact, or supports or rebut an interference suggested by a fact, or which establish the identity of anything or person whose identity is relevant or which show the relation of parties by whom any such fact was transacted, are relevant in so far as they are necessary for the purpose. According to this provision, a person’s tattoo can be used to establish someone’s identity.

Not only for identifying accused of some cases, but tattoo can also be used to identify dead bodies. In the case of Shanker Mahto v State of Bihar, a decomposed body was found by the police near a river. For the court to start the case they first had to identify the body. But the body was so decomposed that it was not even recognizable. The forensic department mentioned in their report that the body was heavily decomposed but there was a tattoo on the arm of the body. It was later recognized by the daughter of the deceased person because of that tattoo. Once the body was recognized the court started its proceeding against the death of the person.

Similarly, in the case of Joginder @ Danny and another v State (NCT of Delhi) case, two headless bodies were found by the railway tracks. The deceased person’s father helped the police to identify the body on the bases of the body’s height, color, and tattoo present on the body.

In conclusion, we can say that evidence of tattoo is very crucial from the aspect of evidence in criminal cases. It can help the prosecution to build a proper story to present in front of the court. Though there are many precautions that the prosecution or the defense lawyer should keep in mind. The tattoo is a type of evidence that can be disappeared from the body of a person if it is not permanent or if it is not inked properly inside the skin layer. Moreover, tattoos are not specific enough to be seen as a shred of evidence. For example, skull tattoo can have a special meaning to certain criminals or gang but a similar tattoo can made because that person has interests in skulls. Therefore, it is also suggested that tattoo evidence should be very accurate and reasonable otherwise it can make even an innocent person guilty for a crime or vice versa. 

References :

https://apnews.com/302e7cc1364b40eb93c82f459ab46236

https://www.casemine.com/search/in/tattoo%20marks%20as%20identification

Also read this: https://lawlex.org/lex-bulletin/evidentiary-value-of-confession/3545

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