DNA archiving could incriminate the innocent

Freedom New Mexico

Effective Jan. 9, the U.S. government will collect DNA samples from all noncitizens detained by the authorities for any reason and from all people arrested for federal crimes.

One can understand the impulse here, given that DNA is a much more reliable identifier than fingerprints and is not subject to change. In addition, responsible use of DNA evidence has not only been key in identifying perpetrators of crime, it has also been used to identify, exonerate and, in some cases, release people who have been wrongly accused or convicted.

In matters of criminal justice, accuracy is important.

However, such a system could be subject to abuse, and when government employees are involved you can be reasonably sure that if abuse is possible it eventually will occur. And casting the DNA collection net so widely as to include people who have not been formally accused or convicted of any crime just might be a step too far.

The original idea behind the National DNA Index System when it was established in 1994 was to store profiles of people who had been convicted of serious violent crimes, such as rape or murder. It’s hard to argue with that, but the system has been expanded over the years, both through law and through regulatory decisions.

The databank now contains 6.2 million DNA samples, including all convicted felons, many guilty of misdemeanors and all people arrested by state governments. If the new system goes into effect it is expected to add some 1.2 million people a year to the database.

Immigration attorneys argue that immigration violations are classified as civil offenses rather than criminal acts, and to lump the DNA of people rounded up by immigration authorities with convicted criminals places an unfair taint on those detained for immigration violations.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that while it has no objection to collecting the DNA of those convicted of crime, many people are arrested but are either never charged or, if they go to trial, are found not guilty.

Again, dumping their DNA into a database with convicted violent criminals could make them subject to unwarranted suspicion during the investigation of future crimes.

There is also the fact that DNA, properly understood, contains a lot more information than simply identifying whether someone was in a certain place at a certain time, such as whether someone is subject to genetic diseases. It is not hard to imagine unscrupulous people with access to such information using it for less-lofty purposes — try blackmail? — than simply determining whether a person was at a crime scene.

A further complication is the government already has a large backlog of DNA samples submitted by (or extracted from) people already convicted of crimes. It is unclear whether the government will be able to handle an inflow of 1.2 million more samples a year responsibly, with due respect for privacy rights.

The incoming Obama administration should review this new rule early on. We would lean toward requiring DNA sample collection only from those already convicted of a crime.