Earlier this month, police arranged to have the DNA of 790 men in Truro, Mass. collected. At the request of the FBI, state and local police conducted a massive DNA collection in the hopes of finding a lead on the three-year-old murder case of Christa Worthington.
While these sorts of mass collections have been effective in solving crime in various European nations, they have seldom been used in the United States.
It is important to note that the United States has been conducting similar DNA collections for databases, but usually only for convicted serious felons.
This event, as well as other upcoming legislation, has breached into new territory in the nature of a national or even international DNA database.
Also in consideration is the chance of a similar situation happening in California.
In the last November election, Californians passed Proposition 69 62 percent to 38 percent. While California has already been building a DNA database of felons convicted of serious crimes, Proposition 69 expands the database to include anyone arrested of any felony, as well as provides funding for implementation.
As the law is written, after 2009 anyone arrested for committing any felony, including a host of nonviolent crimes, will be entered into the DNA database.
While it is possible to be removed from the database if no charges are filed, the burden to do so lies on the individual and not the state.
Which brings us to the question at hand: Is this an appropriate step for a liberal democracy, one that values civil rights, including the right to privacy?
On one hand lies the argument that is simplified in the following terms: ‘If you are innocent you have nothing to fear.’
The proponents of Proposition 69 make a convincing argument; a database of felons will allow law enforcement to quickly reference and accurately identify perpetrators of crimes involving DNA evidence. Yet the privacy advocates also bring up interesting points, mostly driven by a fear of excesses by such a system.
And with such a scrutinizing system that almost lacks a human component of control, it is easy to fear this potentially Orwellian breach of liberties. In the end, the establishment of a DNA database won out in California as well as in 34 other states that have already implemented similar programs.
It seems the technical progress of society will inevitably lead to a nationwide DNA database.
Regardless, the privacy advocates’ fears are not unfounded. Perhaps it is the role of the citizenry to keep a careful eye on the maintenance of DNA databases as part of the law enforcement regime. There are many pitfalls in the system if exploited by human managers.
For instance, DNA samples can be planted, swapped, mislabeled, etc. Simple mistakes can matriculate into grave consequences. Advocates against Proposition 69 cited instances when individuals served dozens of years for simple mistakes by a DNA lab technician. As the system grows, so will the likelihood of errors.
Yet there lie dangers beyond the actual administration of a database that extend into the courtroom. The way the database works in California is that anyone who is arrested for a felony will be entered into the database, regardless of conviction.
While a person can petition out of the database for innocence, there remains an arrest record. Proposition 69, in its wording, allows the record of DNA entries to be used in court.
Personally, I would not be surprised if repeat entries into a database, despite innocence, are used by a prosecutor to build a case against a defendant’s character