FBI, states expanding DNA databases
Goal is to solve more crimes, but privacy concerns raised
By Solomon Moore
NEW YORK – Law enforcement officials are vastly expanding their collection of DNA to include millions more people who have been arrested or detained but not yet convicted. The move, intended to help solve more crimes, is raising concerns about the privacy of petty offenders and people who are presumed innocent.
Until now, the federal government genetically tracked only convicts. But starting this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will join 15 states that collect DNA samples from those awaiting trial and will also collect DNA from detained immigrants — the vanguard of a growing class of genetic registrants.
The F.B.I., with a DNA database of 6.7 million profiles, expects to accelerate its rate of growth from 80,000 new entries a year to 1.2 million by 2012 — a 17-fold increase. F.B.I. officials say they expect DNA processing backlogs — which now stand at more than 500,000 cases — to increase.
Law enforcement officials say that expanding the DNA databanks to include legally innocent people will help solve more violent crimes. They point out that DNA has helped convict thousands of criminals and has exonerated more than 200 wrongfully convicted people.
But criminal justice experts cite Fourth Amendment privacy concerns and worry that the nation is becoming a genetic surveillance society.
“DNA databases were built initially to deal with violent sexual crimes and homicides — a very limited number of crimes,” said Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at City University of New York who studies policing trends. “Over time more and more crimes of decreasing severity have been added to the database. Cops and prosecutors like it because it gives everybody more information and creates a new suspect pool.”
Possible legal implications
Courts have generally upheld laws authorizing compulsory collection of DNA from convicts and ex-convicts under supervised release, on the grounds that criminal acts diminish privacy rights.
DNA extraction upon arrest potentially erodes that argument, a recent Congressional study found. “Courts have not fully considered legal implications of recent extensions of DNA-collection to people whom the government has arrested but not tried or convicted,” the report said.
Minors are required to provide DNA samples in 35 states upon conviction, and in some states upon arrest. Three juvenile suspects in November filed the only current constitutional challenge against taking DNA at the time of arrest. The judge temporarily stopped DNA collection from the three youths, and the case is continuing.
Sixteen states now take DNA from some who have been found guilty of misdemeanors. In South Carolina in 2007, a court ordered a DNA sample to be taken from a man found guilty of loitering for the purpose of prostitution.
As more police agencies take DNA for a greater variety of lesser and suspected crimes, civil rights advocates say the government’s power is becoming too broadly applied. “What we object to — and what the Constitution prohibits — is the indiscriminate taking of DNA for things like writing an insufficient funds check, shoplifting, drug convictions and other cases where police don’t have a need to obtain DNA because it’s not relevant to charges facing them,” said Michael Risher, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.