Forensic DNA Profile
Should all criminals be subject to forensic DNA profiling?
Is your own DNA profile public information?
New York has passed a bill requiring the collection and analysis of DNA samples from nearly all convicted criminals. Many states already require DNA collection from convicted felons, but this bill would require a sample from anyone convicted of almost anything, misdemeanor or felony. The resulting DNA profiles would then be searched within the state of New York and potentially any other state in the country to samples collected from crime scenes. Is this going too far?
Does committing a minor offense for something like playing your radio too loud, forfeit your right to privacy of your own genetic material and consequently make you a potential suspect in all unsolved homicides?
Not surprisingly, there are two sides to this proposed policy, and each with very passionate views. Below are some of the most cited pros and cons on the new broad reaching collection policy of DNA from convicted criminals:
- Many previously unsolved cases will be solved. As the size of the DNA database grows, it only stands to logic that so would the number of matches identified between crime scene samples and people in the database. As a result, those responsible for many of these crimes would be brought to justice.
- Having your DNA on file in a law enforcement database may actually be a deterrent for some, making them think twice before committing an unlawful act. In this way, the increased DNA collection may actually prevent crime.
- Increase cost. Who is going to pick up the bill for collecting, analyzing, and storing all of these samples?
- Invasion of privacy. Do convicted criminals have a right to privacy? What can be done with the DNA profiles collected?
- Is this the tip of the iceberg? Will this make it easier to start collecting DNA samples from everyone, maybe even at birth?
- Will this result in more people being arrested for petty offenses just so the police can get their profile in a searchable database for comparison to other crimes?
- Increased backlog. Crime labs are already overburdened with cases to work. How will the increased number of samples be prioritized and worked?
The practice of collecting DNA samples from convicted felons is not new and has in fact been in place by the FBI since the early 1980’s. Currently, all fifty states mandated sample collection from violent offenders with convictions for such things as sexual assault and homicide. The resulting profiles are stored in each state’s own database and searched nationally against the federal database in a system known as CODIS (Combined DNA Indexing System). To date, the CODIS system contains over ten million DNA profiles and has helped solve thousands of crimes.
Many states not only collect and analyze DNA from convicted felons, but also from individuals merely accused of a crime, as well as some victims. Does this practice overreach the policy of no search warrant without probable cause? After all, by simply being named as suspect in case A, a person’s DNA may be analyzed, stored and searched against a DNA profile from case B, to which there was no prior known connection. The state of Colorado has even taken this a step further, and compared crime scene samples to DNA profiles in their database to come up with “partial matches”. What this means is that it is actually possible to identify a suspect via DNA profiling through finding a relative with a “near” match in the state convicted offender database.
So is this all bad? DNA profiling actually got its start in England after a high profile homicide was turning up few clues except an unknown DNA profile from a bloodstain left at the scene. Authorities systematically collected blood samples from all males within a certain age range so that they could be analyzed and compared to the sample in question. The case was ultimately solved through DNA analysis, but it begs the question of what is our right to privacy over our own genetic material? Once the sample has been collected and analyzed, who can access the resulting the profile and for what purpose? Is it possible that violent offenders all share a “criminal gene” that pre-disposes them to a life of crime? With the availability of such a large collection of data, the capability to analyze the profiles for such a gene is a reality. What if this type of gene was actually identified? Could it be used as a screening tool for young couples wanting to screen their offspring before they are born? Could insurance companies use the data to ascertain the risk of extending a policy to those with the “crime gene” or those living with someone who does?
Proponents of the new law would argue that the DNA samples collected would be for investigative purposes only, and would not be disclosed to any other agencies for any other purpose. They also argue that an individual’s right to privacy is no longer valid after a crime has been committed. Is the collection of a DNA profile any different than the collection of an inked fingerprint, a practice that has been accepted on a global scale for years? The answers to these questions will no doubt be hotly debated for years to come, but one thing is certain. The time is coming when regulations will be required to address these issues and the ethical dilemma that surround them. Is that time now?