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Tuesday, 27 July 2010 20:30

DNA testing for crime suspects sparks ethics debate

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Starting next February, all law enforcement officers will be required to collect DNA from people arrested for certain crimes.

Anyone arrested for murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping or even cyberstalking will automatically have their DNA collected via a cheek swab.

The DNA sample will be entered into a database to see if it matches DNA collected in unsolved crimes. By law, arrestees who are proven innocent will have their DNA eliminated from the database.

For a long time, DNA was routinely collected only from convicted criminals. Taking DNA at the time of arrest had required a warrant or permission from the individual.

State leaders are touting the new law as a step into the 21st century that will help close the books on unsolved crimes and prevent future crime.

“It’ll be a tool to solve crimes quicker, more effectively and the public will be well-served by this,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville. State officials say this measure will help solve hundreds of violent crimes and prevent even more.

But civil libertarians argue the law is unconstitutional and violates the right to privacy.

Sarah Preston, policy director for North Carolina’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, likened the new legislation to an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Taking DNA is invasive,” said Preston. “It could also reveal a great deal of information. Thousands of genetic traits are contained within DNA.”

Preston said the existing law already allows police officers to collect DNA from those arrested in certain cases — they just need to get a warrant or an individual’s permission to do it. Making it mandatory in every single arrest, however, infringes on privacy rights, Preston said.

 

WNC officers weigh in

 

North Carolina joins 23 other states that have passed similar legislation, along with the federal government, which collects DNA from arrestees and detained immigrants.

Local law enforcement officers wholeheartedly support the move.

“DNA is the wave of the future,” said Capt. Blaine Jones of the Waynesville Police Department, adding that the legislation is much needed.

“It’s going to be a big asset to the law enforcement,” said Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Someone arrested for a particular crime today might also be guilty of an unsolved crime in the past. Collecting DNA from these individuals at the time of their arrest could put the earlier mystery to rest.

Moreover, in certain crimes like rape and murder, fingerprints — which can easily be wiped from a crime scene by the perpetrator — are not enough to nab a suspect.

“DNA is the 21st century fingerprint,” said Queen. “This new law will allow the state to fight crime with high-tech identification tools.”

But Preston disagrees that DNA is anything like a fingerprint.

“It’s pretty obviously not,” said Preston. “At the very least, there is so much more information that could be subject to a lot more abuse.”

Christopher Heaney and Sara Huston Katsanis, researchers at the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University, recently wrote an editorial pointing out a serious flaw in how the system currently operates.

Government reports show that evidence from hundreds of thousands of rapes are left untested for DNA, even years after the crime is committed.

While labs would be testing thousands of arrested criminals’ DNA, they might find it nearly impossible to take care of the major backlog of DNA samples already collected from crime scenes, the researchers wrote.

Still, Cochran has faith that the new law will be for the overall good and that the benefits outweigh the cost.

“It’s going to work both ways — for the guilty and for the innocent,” said Cochran.

Queen emphasized that arrested individuals who are found innocent can be assured that their DNA will be expunged from the database.

“We think we’ve got plenty of safeguards for abuse of this DNA evidence,” said Queen.

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