Tuesday, January 17, 2017

DNA laws make the innocent automatic suspects in crimes they didn't commit

Imagine you are falsely arrested for a rape you didn't commit. After a terrible ordeal, you are released and cleared of any wrongdoing. Now imagine if, after that, every time an alleged rape involving a stranger occurs in your locale, you are told to come down to the police station to stand in a police lineup as a possible suspect--even though the police have no evidence whatsoever tying you to the crime.

Sounds like the stuff of third-world dictatorships, doesn't it? So how is that different from what 32 states do with your DNA samples? They allow police to take DNA samples from people as soon as they are arrested on felony charges to be entered into a national database. Even if you are cleared of wrongdoing, unless you take action to expunge it, that information remains in the database.

Well, that's different you say. And, you are right--it is different because it's less intrusive. The police lineup example would require you to show up at the police station whenever a rape occurs and take part in a heart-pounding ordeal that could cause you to be arrested on the spot.

In contrast, you wouldn't even know if they are using your DNA information to tie you to some other crime.

Maybe it's better if you knew. "Once your DNA is the FBI’s database, you’re included in a genetic line-up every time police are looking for a suspect in a crime. And depending on the state that you live in, close family members, whose genetic information is similar to yours and so could be matched through yours, could also be implicated in a search. . . . 'If your DNA is in the database, you’re more likely to be implicated correctly or falsely in a crime,' says ACLU attorney Michael Risher." See here.

True, a police lineup is different because because witness identification is not reliable. But don't fool yourself into thinking that DNA testing is fool-proof.  Read this article--it will send a chill up your spine.

The courts say that taking your DNA sample upon arrest is constitutional. And, yes, in nearly all the states, the accused can expunge their DNA information from databases--but the way this is done varies from state-to-state. In some, it's as simple as sending a letter. But others require a court hearing. It's fair to surmise that most people accused of crimes will not have their DNA information expunged.

Most people would say that no one should worry about having their DNA information included in a national database. First, it helps police catch criminals. (If that were the only concern, we wouldn't bother with the Fourth Amendment--nearly every protection against unlawful search and seizure hinders the police from catching some criminals.) Second, if you're innocent, what do you have to worry about? After all, on television programs, DNA evidence is infallible.  (Again, read that article linked above--it may cause you to rethink some of your favorite programs.)

This isn't an issue many people care about. We've written about it previously (see here), but it's not a topic most people can get excited about. As with so many of the issues affecting the wrongly accused, it only becomes important when you or a loved one experiences it. Let's hope that never happens.