Weighing the DNA Evidence

By now we all understand that DNA analysis is the new fingerprinting. Most states have laws on their books allowing for the collection and retention of DNA from suspects in a crime. The only problem with these laws is that if the suspect turns out to be innocent, his or her DNA remains in the database. It is not right for someone who was not convicted of a crime to have his or her DNA on record.

Supporters of these laws point out all of the successful convictions that come about as a result. Many different types of criminals have been caught because of DNA collected as a result of nonviolent crimes. In California, DNA evidence has most notably led to the arrest of the infamous, “Grim Sleeper.” With such positive results, naturally it would seem to be sensible to keep the database and continue adding samples to it; yet, past successes alone must not justify the retention of “innocent” DNA.

When DNA profiling first started, the big debate was whether or not taking a part of a person’s genetic code could be considered compelling them to testify against themselves. After all, if DNA is unique to the individual, how can it not literally be incriminating yourself for your DNA to reveal your guilt? However, as with fingerprinting, the courts accepted DNA as legitimate evidence and not a violation of Fifth Amendment rights.

The argument today is over whether innocent people should be included in the same collection of records as criminals, which does not discriminate based on prior convictions. In California alone, 300,000 people each year are arrested on suspicion of felonies. Of that group, about 100,000 are never convicted or charged with a crime. There is a process by which such people can get their DNA removed from the database, but the odds are not good given how time- consuming the process is, especially since the DNA may remain anyway.

Considering that California convicts two-thirds of suspects with or without the DNA collection, it does not seem that horrible to exempt suspects who are not convicted. Such people would be cross-matched with convicted felons even though they didn’t do anything to deserve the distinction. We do not live in a police state that keeps tabs on everyone, yet these laws are allowing that notion to become a reality. I’d rather not take the chance that somehow a mistake is made, and because my DNA is on record, I somehow become a suspect or a person of interest.

Paranoia aside, the basic idea behind a DNA database is smart, and it is an effective way to combat crime. There is no disputing that DNA analysis has revolutionized the way we fight crime, not only helping to solve elusive cases, but also helping to pardon the wrongly convicted. But what are advocates of this position trying to accomplish by storing innocent people’s DNA? While the odds are low that an innocent person will be wrongly convicted, the odds are similarly low that an actual criminal will be caught by keeping an otherwise innocent suspect’s sample.

For these rare lucky matches, the majority of wrongly suspected and innocent people have to forever be in the system. Considering California’s two-thirds conviction rate, if criminals are likely to repeat their behavior then we’ll get the bad guys eventually. And considering that wrongly arrested individuals are far less likely than convicted felons to run afoul of the law or be arrested a second time, there’s no reason to keep their DNA on record. Surely for the sake of these people’s rights and liberties, we could draw a line in the sand, and focus on the real criminals; not the innocent.

Kerry Wakely is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.