Seizing DNA In Vermont

by jeeg 11. February 2015 01:14


Say this for the Vermont Legislature: Sometimes it just won’t take “no” for an answer, even when it should know better.

In 2009, the Legislature passed a law extending the requirement to provide DNA samples from only those convicted of felonies to those merely charged with them. Last summer, the Vermont Supreme Court overturned that provision, holding it to be a violation of the Vermont Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Thankfully, the presumption of innocence still counts for something in Vermont.

Now Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, is back at it with new legislation that would extend the DNA sampling requirement to people convicted of misdemeanors that carry prison time as a potential punishment.

“The more people you have in the database, the easier it is to eliminate suspects and to zero in on the right suspect,” says Sears. That’s true, and under that theory, the state should require all newborn Vermonters to submit DNA samples in the event that they grow up to be serial killers.

But this bill is flawed in so many ways that perhaps it won’t come to that. First, it casts an exceptionally wide net; an estimated 4,600 people would be added to the DNA database in the first year alone. Thus thousands of Vermonters who have committed only minor offenses would be required to provide to the state what the Vermont Supreme Court has called “a massive amount of unique, private information” that goes beyond mere identification. That’s a disproportionate imposition on the privacy of someone who may have done nothing more sinister than wander onto posted land. And if you think that this is not a matter of concern to you, consider that by some estimates, 70 percent of adults Americans have, often unintentionally, committed a crime for which they could be imprisoned.

Second, entrusting this vast new amount of personal information to the management of the state of Vermont is folly. The folks who brought us the ace Vermont Health Connect website have demonstrated that beyond a reasonable doubt. If the bill passes, maybe Anthem will be hired as a consultant to provide advice on how to keep sensitive personal information secure from misuse.

Third, according to Vermont Public Radio, the annual costs of complying with the legislation would exceed $142,000 for laboratory tests alone, at a time when the Department of Public Safety is looking to cut more than a million dollars from next year’s budget because of reductions in revenue estimates that are forcing retrenchment throughout state government. If it’s crime this bill seeks to combat, a better use of that money would be to shore up the prison program under which inmates earn high school degrees and get job training — something the Shumlin administration is proposing to shrink.

This legislation is yet another example of technological capability outrunning thoughtful consideration of privacy costs and a failure to anticipate further advances that might pose even thornier problems. Suppose scientists somehow discerned a genetic pattern that in some cases prefigures criminal activity of a certain kind. With all these DNA samples in hand resulting from minor offenses, would the state be tempted to subject those who fit the profile to pre-emptive monitoring in the effort to prevent future crimes? Sounds far-fetched, but so did a lot of other scary invasions of privacy that have become reality in recent years.

Valley News editorial


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