Call for DNA from Arrestees Draws Opposition

The Senate considers legislation to require DNA samples from those arrested by federal agents. Sponsors cite the advantage for police investigating crime scenes. Civil liberties advocates are wary.

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The Senate is considering legislation that would require DNA samples to be taken from anyone arrested by federal authorities. The bill comes as a growing number of states are doing the same, taking genetic information from defendants before they are convicted of any crime. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, opponents of the trend say it destroys any presumption of innocence.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The legislation would authorize a collection of DNA samples from individuals who are arrested or detained under the authority of the United States. The information could then be included in the CODIS database, a national collection of genetic information maintained by the FBI. Federal authorities would join Texas, California, Louisiana and Virginia where laws mandate DNA collection upon arrest for some crimes. Paul Ferarra, director of Virginia's Department of Forensic Science, says the new law has been particularly helpful in solving sex crimes.

Mr. PAUL FERARRA (Director, Virginia's Department of Forensic Science): We've got some 120 rapes in Virginia that have been solved with our arrestee database in just the last three years that the law has been in effect. I and all of those victims would agree that it's worthwhile.

ABRAMSON: The Virginia lab has taken samples from about 20,000 people arrested on suspicion of committing violent felonies. One percent of the time an arrestee's genetic profile matches evidence found at the scene of some unsolved crime. Ferarra says states that wait until conviction to test lose valuable time.

Mr. FERARRA: In that ensuring months or years, the ability of us to identify that person has having been complicit in some other crime is delayed until they are convicted.

ABRAMSON: But the practice of testing arrestees is still so new it's tough to gauge just how effective it is. And even if this tactic does catch criminals, Mark Rothstein of the University of Louisville's Institute of Bioethics, Health Policy and Law says there's no way to justify coercive testing of people who may be completely innocent.

Mr. MARK ROTHSTEIN (University of Louisville): We don't permit wiretaps without warrants. We don't permit coercive interrogations. We don't permit all sorts of things that would result in finding more criminals.

ABRAMSON: Virginia's law mandates that the DNA record be wiped clean if the person is acquitted or charges are dropped. The proposed federal legislation would force the arrestee to petition for a clean record. That's supposed to reduce the bureaucratic burden on states that must track the progress of each case. In fact, many states allow labs to hold on to tissue samples even after records have been cleared. Those samples are supposed to be scrubbed on any personally identifying information but Jesselyn McCurdy, of the American Civil Liberties Union, says she's not ready to trust the state with information that can be so dangerous if misused.

Ms. JESSELYN McCURDY (American Civil Liberties Union): DNA profiles tell you much more than just who you are. They can tell you what genetic diseases you're susceptible to. They can give a person identification factors on both your mother and your father's part. So it's a lot more information in a DNA profile than it is in a fingerprint.

ABRAMSON: But those who maintain DNA databases say there are plenty of legal protections to prevent abuse. Paul Ferarra of the Virginia lab says the proposal to expand the rules for people charged with federal crimes will pass if lawmakers just look at the facts.

Mr. FERARRA: There is no privacy concerns here, only in the minds of those who would like the public to fear that the government is maintaining DNA profiles.

ABRAMSON: The federal legislation was attached to re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act which recently passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Civil liberties groups are hoping to strip the DNA language out before final passage.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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