Jun 01, 2009

Deepening the DNA Pool

You undoubtedly know that when suspects are booked into jail, they are fingerprinted and photographed. Now they may have to provide a DNA sample as well.

At one time, the government could collect DNA samples from suspects only after they had been convicted. However, in an effort to expand the pool of available DNA samples, the U.S. Congress enacted the "Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005'' (PDF). This federal law authorized the taking of DNA samples from suspects who had been arrested for felonies. The DNA samples will of course remain in government files even if charges are dropped or suspects are found not guilty.

Defense lawyers have argued unsuccessfully that collecting DNA samples from felony arrestees is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. Judges have responded that since DNA testing is routine (often consisting of a swab or a simple blood test), the intrusion on privacy is minimal. Collecting DNA samples also does not interfere with a suspect's privilege against self- incrimination, since that constitutional right protects suspects against having to provide the government with testimonial evidence but not against having to provide physical evidence.

Should there be any restrictions on the government's right to collect DNA samples? For example, if the federal law were broadened to allow the government to collect DNA samples from suspects arrested for misdemeanor offenses, would it still be valid? For that matter, why wait until people are arrested to collect DNA samples? If the idea is to have the broadest possible DNA database available to identify the guilty and exculpate the innocent, should DNA samples be collected from everyone at birth? The DNA pool is getting deeper, and at this point, its ultimate depth is uncertain.