New DNA Law Cuts Both Ways
T he state's decision to take DNA samples from all those charged with serious crimes, not just those convicted, holds great promise.
It also poses great danger. When this powerful new investigative tool becomes effective in February, it will behoove all of us, outside government as well as in, to keep an eye on the procedure lest it be abused
It is common parlance for people to say casually - or occasionally even to write in newspapers - that someone was arrested "for" a particular crime. Wrong. That person was arrested on certain charges and enjoys a presumption of innocence.
Under such circumstances, forcing a mere suspect to relinquish a DNA sample - even if that only involves stroking the inside of his or her cheek with a cotton swab - carries a kind of unspoken assumption of guilt and amounts to a troubling invasion of personal privacy.
Practicality vs. Fairness
Granted, no one can deny that DNA analysis amounts to a scientific miracle that holds great potential, not only to convict the guilty but also to exonerate the innocent and liberate the wrongly imprisoned. The process has already worked any number of high-visibility wonders of the latter kind in recent years.
So the legislature can perhaps justify this venture, which involves another step down the road of placing undeniable practical effectiveness ahead of the philosophical scruples that understandably caused some lawmakers to grow squeamish and vote "no" on the change.
The law requires collection of samples from all those arrested on serious charges such as murder, felonious assault, armed robbery or sexual offenses. Local police or deputies will take the samples and send them to the SBI laboratory in Raleigh.
That part of the plan understandably gives some of us pause, since said lab does not have an entirely unblemished image. A few months ago, after a convicted man was exonerated, it was revealed that the SBI lab had withheld evidence in his case. As a result, Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered an independent review of the lab operation.
Potential for Abuse
Even assuming the absence of more intentional abuses, the law creates a heightened possibility of simple human error. The already overworked SBI facility will now be handling an estimated 30,000 additional samples annually. This will make it even harder to ensure compliance with the law's requirements that testing be done promptly and accurately and that DNA samples be quickly destroyed in cases of acquittal or dismissal of charges.
Under the new law, for some reason, the responsibility for taking steps to get samples from acquitted suspects destroyed is placed on the innocent parties themselves - at least for the first 16 months. After that, district attorneys are supposed to initiate the process.
In any case, the agency plans to hire eight new employees to help process the additional samples - and is exploring the possibility of outsourcing some of them as well. Ironclad procedures will also need to be put in place to minimize unauthorized disclosure of the highly sensitive personal information involved, especially where innocence has been established.
If we're going to do it, we take on an obligation to do it right.
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