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Should police have right to take DNA from suspects?
Scripps Howard News Service


October 26, 2005

WASHINGTON - The Sherlock Holmes of the future will arrive on a crime scene expecting less to use magnifying glasses and intuition than computers linked remotely back to laboratories for on-the-spot DNA analysis of tell-tale evidence like blood spatters.

This isn't fiction, but a scenario sketched out by the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, which concluded that by 2010 DNA-typing could bring a revolution in how detectives operate on crime scenes and catch criminals.

Congress is considering legislation aimed at speeding up that future day by requiring everyone arrested or detained by the police to have DNA samples taken for a national DNA database. The government currently collects samples mainly from convicted murderers and sex offenders, although some states include non-violent crimes such as food stamp theft.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., says an analysis of eight serial killers operating in Chicago showed that all could have been caught after their first offense if a DNA database was in place and if people previously arrested for crimes were required to give DNA evidence along with their fingerprints.

"We know from real life examples that a database of arrestees can prevent many future offenses,'' said Kyl, who sponsored legislation that passed the Senate that would expand the FBI's DNA database by requiring anyone arrested for a serious crime provide the government with a DNA sample.

Kyl's proposal, attached to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, is whipping up intense opposition from civil liberties groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which supports reauthorization of federal laws cracking down on violence against women, said it is withdrawing support from the legislation because it feels so strongly against the DNA database provision.

Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union says expanding the DNA database to include all arrestees violates a person's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. "People will be penalized for either being arrested or detained, even if the detention or arrest is unlawful,'' she said.

Mark Rothstein, director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, said the database proposal is a mistake.

"Pretty soon - and there are people who have advocated this - everyone will be required to submit a DNA sample to the police,'' he said.

Rothstein said he's not opposed to police gathering DNA samples from those who are convicted of serious felonies. But he said a law requiring arrestees and detainees to give DNA samples goes too far and he's skeptical that an expanded DNA database would be of real help to police catching criminals earlier.

"Nobody is trying to be soft on criminals. But putting everyone in a database I don't think is the right way to go," he said. "Our history has been finding a balance between law enforcement and civil liberties."

He said that if the proposal becomes law, police might start trumping up charges against suspects just to obtain a DNA profile for use in their investigations into actual crimes.

Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, disagrees. He said the expanded database will help reduce the backlog of 221,000 unsolved rape and murder cases in the United States.

"DNA has been unbelievably helpful in catching criminals," said Berkowitz, who maintains expanding the base to include everyone arrested "is the logical next step" in improving genetic fingerprinting. "I'm sensitive to the civil liberties concerns,'' he said, noting that arrestees not prosecuted or found innocent have their DNA samples removed automatically expunged from the database.

Since DNA evidence was first used as evidence in American courts in 1987, it has become a powerful crime-fighting tool. The New York-based Innocence Project put DNA technology to use in obtaining the release of more than 130 people convicted of crimes that the DNA tests showed they could not have committed. Several court battles - including famously that of football star O.J. Simpson - have established how DNA evidence can be used.

A federal commission predicts that by 2010, detectives could access the database remotely at crime scenes and determine the ethnic origins of those who committed the crime, or they could combine with other databases to narrow suspects. More controversially, some scientists contend that sometime in the future genetic markers in DNA could point to a propensity to commit crimes.

Dave Reichert, a former Kent County, Wash., sheriff who spent his law enforcement career hunting the Green River killer, is pushing for expanding the DNA database. Reichert, now a Republican congressman, says he wishes DNA technologies were more widely available when the Green River killing spree started.

The killer was eventually identified as Gary Ridgway of Seattle, who confessed to 48 killings. Ridgway was arrested in 1982 for charges related to prostitution, and in 1987 police took hair and saliva samples. It was these samples that in 2001 linked Ridgway's DNA sample to the DNA evidence found on three of the Green River victims.

"I know firsthand from my experience in the Green River case how important DNA evidence is to unlocking complex crimes and providing closure to victims. Building up our DNA databases across the country is common sense action to close cases and get offenders off our streets," Reichart said at a meeting in his district.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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