More DNA Samples, More Debate

by jeeg 23. September 2013 20:47

Law-enforcement agencies in many places routinely take DNA samples from people convicted of murder and other violent crimes. But here in Orange County, officials also are taking samples from people charged with minor offenses such as shoplifting and drug possession, in exchange for agreeing to dismiss the charges or as part of plea deals.

The practice of taking the cheek-swab samples is voluntary, which partially sidesteps a national controversy over when law enforcement can require DNA samples. But it also has raised the ire of civil-rights advocates, who say the practice is coercive.

Orange County officials say their database has been successful in helping solve crimes, including cold cases, as well as prevent future crimes. Nearly 100,000 DNA profiles have been collected since the county launched the program in 2007. It now has a database "that has created a lot of value to law enforcement," said Scott Scoville, a deputy district attorney in the Orange County DA's DNA unit.

Last year, an Orange County man submitted a DNA sample as part of a plea deal after he was arrested for drunken driving. Raul Moreno-Perez's sample was entered into the database, where it matched DNA found in connection with a rape case that had remained unsolved for more than 10 years. Mr. Moreno-Perez was charged with rape and kidnapping and is awaiting trial; his defense attorney didn't respond to a request for comment.

"This is exactly the type of crime we were targeting" when the program was created, said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

Camille Hill, a deputy district attorney in Orange County, said the program has drawn interest from prosecutors elsewhere.

"Look at violent felons, look at where they started," said Ms. Hill. "They started with a petty theft at Target."

Still, not everyone agrees that more is better when it comes to gathering DNA.

Jennifer Friedman, a public defender in Los Angeles County, said she believes there is a "coercive element" at play in the way that Orange County prosecutors agree to drop charges in exchange for DNA. "There's a real fear that, 'If I don't give a sample, I am going to be investigated,' " Ms. Friedman said. "It's hard to convince someone to not take a dismissal in return for just giving a little saliva."

Debate has raged for years over whether law enforcement should be allowed to collect DNA from people who are arrested but not convicted of serious crimes. That question sharply divided the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year when it found in favor of the state of Maryland, which calls for DNA collection from people arrested and charged with violent crimes.

A similar California law is being challenged before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In California, more than 1.4 million DNA profiles have been collected—far more than in any other state.

Orange County's database contains an additional 20,000 profiles of people whose minor charges were dismissed in exchange for the sample, representing roughly 20% of the district attorney's total database.

Julie Samuels, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who studies DNA collection nationally, wonders whether law-enforcement agencies may be reaching "a point of diminishing returns" in gathering samples while there are backlogs at many agencies in processing forensic DNA gathered at crime scenes. In order to solve crimes, Ms. Samuels said, a person's profile has to match crime-scene DNA.

Law-enforcement agencies "should consider investing more in the DNA analysis of crime-scene evidence, rather than adding more and more arrestees," she said.

It isn't uncommon for local agencies elsewhere, such as police departments and medical examiners, to collect DNA samples beyond what is required by law. Police, for example, may request DNA from people to eliminate them as suspects.

The efforts are troubling to some defense lawyers and civil-liberties groups, who say DNA collection interferes with individual privacy. "By having DNA in this database, you become a potential suspect in any crime where DNA evidence is recovered," said Michael Risher, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing a group challenging California's DNA-collection law.

Jacqueline Goodman, a defense attorney in Orange County, said the prospect of going to court is "frightening" to many of her clients. Some have professional licenses that they don't want to place in jeopardy. Others are undocumented immigrants and are worried that they could get in more serious trouble.

"Imagine you were driving without your license," she said. "You could go to trial or you could just give your DNA. You'd probably give your DNA."

The program shows no signs of slowing: The Orange County district attorney's office operates five DNA sample collection stations at county courthouses, staffed with three to four people a day, who take cheek swabs and send them to a private lab in Virginia for processing.

Each station collects 10 to 15 samples a day, and the lab takes about 30 days to process the DNA, which is then entered into the local database.

Erica E. Phillips, Wall St. Journal


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