Book Review: "Forensic Procedures for Boundary and Title Investigation" by Donald A Wilson
Professional Surveyor Magazine - April 2008
Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
This book is similar in format to Wilson's prior publication, Interpreting Land Records. Both books are largely compilations of court cases and other authoritative statements (in this case, some made by real persons, such as Dr. Henry C. Lee, the writer of the Foreword to the book, others by fictional characters, such as Sherlock Holmes, Wilson's idol if not alter ego). Both books are addressed to boundary surveyors, title searchers and attorneys (this one more than the other to surveyors). And both focus on procedures, this book on the procedures of fact-finding, but it includes rules and principles when they are pertinent (though the frequent citation of rulings, which are principles in the form of precedents, actually overshadows the elaboration of procedures).
The books are also companion pieces topically. Land records and field data must be collected in order to be interpreted. Inasmuch as they must be collected before they can be interpreted, this book is, in effect, the prequel to the other.
Not unexpectedly, there is at least some apparent overlap between the two books. Forensic Procedures contains several chapters, the titles of which come straight out of Interpreting Land Records: "Interpreting the Evidence" (Ch. 7), "Land Records" (Ch. 8), and "Dealing with Words, Punctuation and Numbers" (Ch. 9). But their objective is different. Chapter 7 deals with the interpretive value of information that is gathered, instead of its meaning; Chapter 8 deals with the less commonly consulted sources of land records, rather than the most important; and Chapter 9 deals with the effectiveness of the use of words, punctuation, and numbers, not their possible ambiguity.
A large part of the book—11 out of 23 chapters, 241 out of 368 pages, not counting another 70 pages of appendices—is essentially a primer on the retracement of property boundaries. The tone of these chapters is set by the mandate of "following the footsteps" of prior surveyors, especially the first surveyor, of a tract of land (Ch. 10). This chapter is followed by a discussion of corners, marked and unmarked (Ch. 11), and of directions and distances, relative to each other (Ch. 12), and independently of each other (Ch. 13 and 14). These chapters are must-reading for every boundary surveyor.
Wilson inserts, at this point, a chapter on mathematics (Ch. 15). After elaborating the types of error in making measurements, he compares the results of employing the four commonly used ways of making adjustments to eliminate those errors: the compass rule, the transit rule, the Crandall method, and the least squares method. (I have wanted to see such a comparison for a long time. Now, I'm saved the trouble of making it myself. But I still have to analyze it.) Theoretically, least squares is the best method, but Wilson points out that boundary surveyors should try to ascertain the method most likely to have been used by their predecessors for clues to any discrepancies among surveys.
Picking up the topic of corners and lines again, five chapters elaborate various kinds of physical evidence: the remains of trees and posts (Ch. 18), wood and stone fences (Ch. 19), set stones and pipes/pins (Ch. 20), highways, roads, and streets (Ch. 21), and water boundaries (Ch 22). Few of us will ever have use for the more unusual material contained in these chapters. But to have it articulated in such depth is a boon to the profession.
I have purposely refrained so far from speaking of forensics, for the simple reason that surveyors do not think in those terms in their daily practice. What makes their work forensic is the context in which, and the attitude with which, the procedures are followed. That context is a judicial action or an insurance claim, which may or may not involve a civil suit. The latter, though not discussed in the book, is in my experience the more common reason for employing them. In both contexts, perpetration or culpability must be established, even if it seems evident from the start. This involves (sometimes literally, not just figuratively) digging up the recent or distant past and is driven by an itch to figure things out. But the desire to know and the actual discovery of facts do not, by themselves, constitute forensics, as the book sometimes suggests. To be forensic, an activity must attempt to settle a misdeed or a grievance by legal means.
The change in context and attitude is discussed in the remainder— actually, the beginning—of the book. In Chapter 1, the surveyor is cast in the role of detective. In Chapter 2, facts are morphed into evidence. In Chapter 3, the site of the survey is made the scene of the crime or accident. In Chapter 4, research, including the search of records and field reconnaissance, becomes investigation. In Chapter 5, the two clear-cut modes of thinking, induction and deduction, are melded into a combined form, called abduction. In Chapter 6, attention to detail is considered more imperative than the formation of an explanation. Later on, in Chapter 16, the appraisal of the capabilities of other surveyors, most of the time formed randomly from direct contact or from a run-in with their work, becomes profiling. (Surveyors are more likely to form profiles of clients, especially how demanding they are and how dependably they pay.) In Chapter 17, the inquiry about a previous survey or a plan is transformed into interviewing, called interrogation when it becomes confrontational. Finally, Chapter 23 covers the ethics of the process. The two essential qualities of the forensic specialist are objectivity, the absence of any personal stake in the investigation, and persistence, the undeviating pursuit of its objective.
One chapter seems to be missing from the book, that of correlating the evidence into a coherent explanation and its presentation in court. But that is another topic, and is mainly the task of the attorney arguing a case. All too often, the attorney needs more than a supply of evidence from the surveyor. For Wilson, perhaps occasion for another book!
Don Wilson tells us that he plans at least one more chapter for the next edition: Presentation & Testimony. It will include being an expert witness, hearsay rules, scientific/admissibility standards, and digital imagery, among other things.
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