Features

DNA dilemma

Crime | New federal guidelines to expand genetic sampling create more questions over whether more information is too much

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

LOWELL, Ind.- When a fleck of blood, a hair root, or a body fluid sample arrives at the State Police DNA lab in Lowell, Ind., it may be the only piece of evidence collected from a crime scene. Its value, however, will be high for both victim and criminal: If its DNA matches up in the system, the crime may be solved.

Inside the lab's "layout room," analysts in latex gloves identify DNA-containing material at a large lamp-lit counter. Working with a single sample as small as three millimeters, the DNA analysts use an array of chemicals, filters, and centrifuges to isolate and extract genetic molecules.

In the "amplification room" the molecules are coaxed into replicating themselves. A computerized machine that might have been inspired by Star Trek plunges 16 needles into gene-filled vials, creating EKG-like graphs of about 13 locations on the human genome, which together constitute a standard genetic profile that is unique to nearly every person (identical twins excepted).

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Once a profile has been obtained analysts may, depending on the case, upload the information to a searchable state database, where it can be compared with other crime scene data and the genetic profiles of convicted felons. If two DNA profiles in the database match, that's called a cold hit-and is often the link needed to solve a murder or rape.

The Lowell Regional Laboratory is one of Indiana's two local members of the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a network of databases across the United States that makes DNA profiles nationally available to law enforcement officials. Local labs provide crime scene data to a state-run index, which in turn makes most profiles available to the FBI's national database, authorized by the DNA Identification Act of 1994.

Kristine Crouch, Indiana's state CODIS administrator, uploads DNA profiles to the federal database once a week. Except for a category for missing persons, the database has crime scene samples and convicted felons in Indiana, she said. Strict rules and detailed questions about each DNA sample govern what can be added to Indiana's database. Victims are excluded. "It's an investigation tool," Crouch said of CODIS. "It provides leads."

State databanks are governed by state law, and when it comes to whose profiles can be added to them, Indiana is among a quickly fading breed of conservative collectors. In May, Maryland joined a dozen other states that collect and store DNA from individuals arrested for-but not yet convicted of-murder or sex crimes. Fourteen more states are considering similar legislation.

Now the U.S. Department of Justice is following the expansion trend with proposed rules that could come into effect by the end of the year. Authorized by legislation originally written by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and passed by Congress in 2005, the new guidelines call for the collection of DNA from anyone arrested in connection to a federal crime and from detained "non-United States persons," such as illegal immigrants.

Officials believe the expansion will add 1.2 million new profiles annually, the majority of them from illegal immigrants, to the FBI's CODIS databank, already the world's largest at 6 million profiles. Barring challenges to the rules, federal arrestees who are routinely fingerprinted will find themselves opening wide for a cheek swab or submitting to a finger prick by 2009.

DNA sampling is often viewed as high-tech fingerprinting, but some privacy advocates think the storage of a potentially innocent arrestee's DNA turns the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" on its head. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former prosecutor, criticized the new federal policy in an April statement: "This change adds little or no value for law enforcement, while intruding on the privacy rights of people who are, in our system, presumed innocent. It creates an incentive for pretextual arrests, and will likely have a disproportionate impact on minorities and the poor." The American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the new rules in a letter to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security: "Housing a person's DNA in a criminal database renders that person an automatic suspect for any future crime-without warrant, probable cause, or individualized suspicion."

Such critics are overstating the case, according to Andrew Grossman, a policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation. "Certainly people have a privacy interest in biological materials," Grossman told WORLD. "But the question is, what is their reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to this particular use? It's just like adding someone's fingerprints to a database." If not charged with an offense, FBI rules allow arrestees to petition for expungement from CODIS. But "it's not something your average American is going to care about one way or another."

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