Society

Police Shouldn't Be Able To Get DNA Samples From Suspects

| by Nik Bonopartis
A forensic scientist swabs a knife for DNA evidence.A forensic scientist swabs a knife for DNA evidence.

Get arrested in Oklahoma, and your DNA profile could be retained in a criminal database for life.

Lawmakers in the state are considering a bill that would allow police to collect DNA samples from people accused of felony crimes before their cases go to court.

If the law passes, Oklahoma will join 28 other states in outright contempt of the Fourth Amendment, invading the privacy and squashing the rights of Americans for the sake of making things easier for police. What happened to "innocent until proven guilty"?

There are clear advantages to collecting DNA from criminal suspects. The most obvious and straightforward reason to collect DNA is to match a suspect to a crime scene or other evidence, like swabs from a rape victim.

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But the real boon to law enforcement is storing the DNA in a database called CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System.

Right now, the FBI says CODIS has more than 12 million DNA profiles from convicts, more than two million profiles from people who have been arrested and about 700,000 "forensic profiles," which are DNA samples that have not yet been matched to people.

Take the example of a serial rapist who has sexually assaulted a dozen women. The rapist might be an otherwise upstanding citizen with no arrest record and nothing to tie him to the rapes. But if that rapist gets caught once, or gets booked on another felony charge, like a second-offense DWI, then his DNA is entered into CODIS, where it will match DNA taken from the 12 earlier rapes he's committed.

That's a best-case scenario if all 12 rape kits have been analyzed. Right now there are warehouses full of evidence kits with DNA that hasn't been tested or run through databases like CODIS, but the backlog of DNA is another story entirely.

That kind of success story is usually cited by lawmakers pushing more intrusive DNA laws. But they don't like to talk about the millions of DNA profiles taken from people who were not convicted, or who weren't even charged.

In California, DNA swabs are taken immediately from people arrested on felony charges. Yet in a challenge to state law allowing cops to take DNA samples, attorneys pointed out that in 2012, 62 percent of people arrested on suspicion of felony charges were not convicted, and another 20 percent weren't even charged, according to the Los Angeles Times.

So what happens to those DNA profiles taken from innocent people? They languish in the database indefinitely, because while the state is gung-ho about taking samples from people, it has an abysmal track record when it comes to removing the DNA profiles of innocent people.

The sad truth is that once government has something, it's almost always unwilling to let it go, and noticeably absent from Oklahoma's debate is any sort of mechanism for innocent citizens to have their DNA removed from databases.

Allowing DNA collection is a slippery slope. First, police wanted it for convictions. Now, they want it for arrests. In 2012, New York became the first state to pass an "all crimes" DNA collection bill, meaning authorities can now collect DNA from people convicted of misdemeanors.

In California, police can conduct "familial DNA searches." If DNA from a crime scene doesn't match any of the millions of criminals and non-criminals in CODIS, investigators can try a partial match to find relatives of the unknown suspect. It's an unreliable technology, an October 2015 story in Wired noted, with the potential to ruin lives.

Or, as the Pacific Standard puts it, "a brother or sister can be a snitch without ever saying a word."

So where does it stop? Is the next step collecting DNA from people who get traffic tickets? Should every citizen be forced to provide DNA samples for an ultimate, all-inclusive CODIS database? Should cops come to elementary schools toting DNA kits to collect swabs from children, like they do with fingerprints? That would be handy for police if any of those children become criminals in a decade or two.

DNA testing is obtrusive, unconstitutional and leads to even further overreach by government. Worse, the Supreme Court has an abominable track record when it comes to understanding and parsing the underlying issues. Any Oklahoma lawmaker with even a bit of foresight should say no to the state proposal, before it sets them down that slippery slope.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: KWTV, Wired, New York State Office of the Governor, Electronic Frontier Foundation (2), FBI CODIS NDIS Statistics, Pacific Standard / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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