Experts: DNA ruling could lead to national ID

by jeeg 16. July 2013 23:30

Indiana law enforcement officials could find it easier to fight crime if a national database holding DNA profiles of everyone born in the United States is created as the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month, experts say.

The prospect has had investigators and privacy advocates abuzz since the high court's June 3 decision that police could take a DNA swab from anyone arrested for a serious crime without violating Fourth Amendment limits on search and seizure.

Currently, DNA profiles of felons or arrestees are entered into a national database that is managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and used to match evidence left at a crime scene. Twenty-eight states and the federal government now take DNA swabs after arrests.

A broader database would allow investigators to screen the entire population to find the right suspect instead of limiting their search to those who had already been arrested or convicted, said Kristine Crouch, a forensic scientist for the Indiana State Police.

"If you leave your DNA at the crime scene, we will know who you are," Crouch said.

But some are worried that the definition of offenses that qualify for DNA samples could be stretched to include things as minor as traffic tickets. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says allowing law enforcement to take DNA samples is simply the first step toward collecting DNA from everyone in the country.

"People are arrested all the time for talking back to a police officer, things like that," said Ruthann Robson, a professor of constitutional law at the City University of New York. A broader database, she said, would be "kind of a profile of everybody by name, which sounds like Brave New World and Big Brother-ish."

Supporters like Penn State Dickinson School of Law Professor David Kaye say broadening the database would make the system fairer and more effective. The current system containing only convicts and arrestees disproportionately represents minorities, Kaye said, and only allows DNA to be matched to people who already have a criminal record. Broadening the sample increases the odds of someone getting caught, even if they haven't been caught before.

"The more people who are in it, the greater the chance of finding matches when searches are done," said Kaye, an expert on the use of DNA evidence.

But it's not as simple as collecting the DNA, Crouch said. Cost and logistics are formidable obstacles.

"You'd have to generate a DNA profile from them first, which takes about 15 minutes and costs $25," she said. Multiply that by the U.S. population, and you have a cost in the billions of dollars.

Time is another factor. Each DNA profile requires about 15 minutes, she said, and the Indiana lab processes about 90 per day. Nationally, that's millions of hours to take all the profiles, let alone the time it takes to put them in a database.

Such a database would require strict oversight to make sure it isn't misused, some experts said.

"I make a very sharp distinction between using DNA as a super fingerprint and using DNA as a way of learning things about people's health and insurability," said Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, who favors setting up a universal DNA database.

Crouch said investigators would have to be extremely careful in their use of DNA.

"Say you flip your cigarette out the window and the next day somebody robs a bank nearby. You could be accused of that crime," she said.

Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian, who heads the Idaho Innocence Project that helped U.S. college student Amanda Knox win her freedom in an Italian murder case, said expanding the database could help clear people falsely convicted of crimes. But he acknowledged it would pose a clear danger to privacy.

"I just want to know, where are the safeguards?" he said.

Charles Wilson, AP


Comments are closed
Log in