Over-sampling DNA in Rhode Island

by jeeg 2. June 2014 19:33


A bill before the Rhode Island General Assembly would give law enforcement sweeping new powers to collect DNA from people placed under arrest. The legislature should refine this measure, which both overreaches and provides insufficient safeguards for the innocent.

The proposed measure, recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee, empowers police officers to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a violent crime. Eligible offenses range from murder to assault, robbery and larceny. The samples may be collected even if a person is never formally charged, a dangerous provision that could tempt the police to indulge in pretext arrests. Adding insult to injury, those who are not charged would have to formally request that their samples be expunged from the state’s database.

Similar efforts to expand DNA collection have been mounted in the past but failed to advance. Currently, Rhode Island law requires DNA samples only from people convicted of a felony. That seems fair. Law enforcement agencies are understandably eager to have more DNA evidence available, but the risk is a steady erosion of privacy. The more DNA samples that are entered in a government database, the greater the prospect of surveillance.

Most states now have DNA collection laws. The more sensible ones require that a person at least be arraigned before having to provide a sample. Rhode Island should also bear in mind that administering such a program is costly. Legislators plan to seek a federal grant to help pay for this effort if the bill passes. But should funding evaporate, Rhode Island taxpayers would be faced with an added burden. The DNA bill should either be more narrowly tailored, or shelved.

Providence Journal Editorial


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