A forensic scientist processes DNA samples at the New York State Police lab in Albany.
A forensic scientist processes DNA samples at the New York State Police lab in Albany. Mike Groll/AP
Early on Thursday, lawmakers in New York approved a bill that will make the state the first to require DNA samples from almost all convicted criminals — and make its DNA database one of the largest in the nation.
Most states, including New York, already collect DNA samples from felons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. What's remarkable about the New York bill is that it would expand the state's database to include DNA from people convicted of almost any crime, even misdemeanors as minor as jumping over a subway turnstile.
Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, is concerned the strain of all that additional DNA will overwhelm the state crime labs that handle it.
"Instead of helping us solve crimes, this may result in the conviction of innocent New Yorkers," she says. "What we've seen in other jurisdictions is that when you engage in the massive expansion of the database like that, there are shortcuts that are taken and there's negligence, there's fraud, there's contamination. And it's really an enormous hurdle for defendants."
The bill's authors did exempt minor marijuana convictions from the DNA reporting requirement. But its backers, including Richard Aborn at the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, say there's a good argument for including even the most minor offenses in the database.
"We know from lots of studies and lots of data now that violent criminals very often begin their careers as nonviolent criminals," Aborn says. "And the earlier you can get a nonviolent criminal's DNA in the data bank, the higher your chances are of apprehending the right person."
That may be why the bill has enjoyed the support of district attorneys all across the state. Aborn says the bill's authors did a good job of making sure that defense lawyers will have access to the database, too. And he points out that DNA can be used to prove innocence, as well as guilt.
"DNA is really the 21st century fingerprint. And it's actually a more accurate fingerprint," he says, "because it has a higher degree of reliability."
But Lieberman disagrees. "This isn't just like a fingerprint," she says. "This is like a whole range of genetic material."
And that material can potentially reveal far more about you, including your genetic makeup and family background. The New York Civil Liberties Union and others wanted to see stronger oversight of the state agency that will handle the database. In fact, so did Assemblyman Joseph Lentol of Brooklyn, who co-sponsored the bill. But Lentol thinks the benefits of the DNA database outweigh the risks.
"If you've committed a crime and you get into the database, all this does is put you in the database," he says. "And it will sit there forever so long as you don't commit another crime. Nobody's gonna use it; no health agencies are going to have access to it."
Maybe not now, say privacy advocates. But they worry that once the DNA is on file, there's no going back.