Local Police Amassing Own DNA Databases

A Supreme Court ruling recently determined that DNA collections at the time of arrest constitute a Constitutional search. In other words, even if you aren’t convicted of an offense, the government can take your DNA. And while this ruling will set the stage for even more liberal DNA seizures at the state and federal levels, a recent article from the New York Times reveals that cities are already taking pretty big liberties in collecting their own DNA databases, without the pesky regulations of the state or feds.

“We have been warning law enforcement that when public attention began to focus on these rogue, unregulated databases, people would be disturbed,” said Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project. “Law enforcement has just gone ahead and started collecting DNA samples from suspects in an unregulated fashion.”

dna evidenceScheck is right—the databases are disturbing, particularly when you consider many local agencies are collecting and storing DNA of nearly every citizen they contact. They are not only getting DNA from convicted offenders and suspects, but from victims. They are even collecting specimens from the garbage. And they are storing it all—often without that person’s knowledge.

For their part, officials in places like NYC, Palm Bay, and Orange County, California, say their databases are important tools in public safety. And they allow them to create their own system without having to wait on the regulations and slow testing from state and federal facilities.

NYC, for instance, has their own database with 11,000 DNA profiles. In Orange County, there are about 90,000. In Baltimore, there is a database that includes samples from more than 3,000 homicide victims.

“Unfortunately, what goes into the national database are mostly reference swabs of people who are going to prison,” says Jay Whitt of DNA:SI Labs, a company that profits from the database-movement—selling testing and database services to law enforcement. “They’re not the ones we’re dealing with day in day out, the ones still on the street just slipping under the radar.”

So, what about samples from unsuspecting citizens and even victims? DNA collection from a victim could be part of a criminal investigation (in a rape case, for instance). But if the cops are investigating a burglary and take evidence from the scene, they may ask for samples from everyone in the house to “rule them out” as sources. Then, they simply store those samples that have freely been handed over. Indefinitely.

“There really are no rules as to what you can specifically keep,” said Jill Spriggs, from the Sacramento district attorney’s crime lab. “The forensic community is all over the board.”

In other words, there are little to no regulations and very limited knowledge as to what is going on in these collection and storage procedures. And that’s just the way local law enforcement likes it.

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