Questioned document examination (QDE) is a forensic science discipline pertaining to documents that are potentially disputed in a court of law. The examination’s primary purpose is to provide evidence about suspicious or questioned documents using a variety of scientific principles and methods. Document examination might include alterations, obliterations, paper analysis, forgery, origin, determining authenticity, or any other questions.

At first thought, the average person does not realize the scope of the words “questioned document.”  One envisions a signature on a will, a check, or a contract.  Only after careful consideration does he realize that a typewritten letter, dollar bill, postage stamp, gas station receipt, airline ticket, and even the brand on the side of a cow roaming the range can be a “questioned document.”  In the broadest, all-encompassing terms, a document is any fixed method of communication between one individual and another.  Quite simply then, a questioned document is one in which a document in its entirety, or in part, is subject to question as to authenticity and/or origin.

The examinations required to answer those questions may be complex, encompassing the method in which the document was created, the ink or machine printing upon it, the date it was written, the company responsible for the document’s production, what sequence it was written in, and finally, the identification of the author.  The examiner may first have to restore the item after it has been burned, altered, obliterated or torn.

Sixty or seventy years ago, handwriting, inks and papers, typewriting, machine copying, counterfeiting, commercial printing processes, and analytical instruments for the examination of questioned documents were comparatively simple.  The post World War II era brought on a remarkable proliferation of new inks, writing implements and papers, novel typewriting systems, new printing techniques and an explosion in the numbers and types of copying machines.  This was then followed by a tidal wave of computers and related software, scanners, high-speed printers and facsimile machines.  These have revolutionized the production, transmission and storage of both office and personal documents.  This, in turn, has caused dramatic broadening of not only document problems, but techniques and instrumentation utilized by the contemporary document examiner.

One can correctly surmise that the crimes of forgery and document alteration have developed parallel to these aforementioned advancements.  Often during the commission of a crime, a paper trail consisting of handwriting, machine printing, or other documentary evidence may become a by-product or even the main resource of the endeavor.

Anonymous notes, forgeries, embezzlements, altered documents, threatening letters, extortion requests and kidnapping demands are the active portion of many criminal and fraudulent activities. This questioned document evidence not only becomes trial evidence, but may first, after examination, actually contain the elements necessary to reveal the perpetrator.