WASHINGTON – A Bush administration plan to expand federal DNA databases by compelling virtually anyone arrested to give up their genetic code has sparked debate between supporters who say it will solve more cases and critics who insist it is too intrusive.
The plan would, among other things, give law enforcement better tools to analyze rape kits and other "cold case" evidence that has gone unexamined for years, identify missing people, exonerate those wrongly accused or convicted of crimes and conduct more DNA analysis of samples from possible offenders. It also aims to reduce the DNA backlogs currently facing many law enforcement agencies.
The Justice Department (search) version currently being finalized with leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary committees would commit more than $1 billion over the next five years to the plan, which would extend to all levels of the criminal justice system.
"The president is committed to realizing the full potential of DNA technology to solve crime and protect the innocent," Attorney General John Ashcroft said in announcing the plan in March.
But civil rights and privacy groups have slammed elements of the proposal they say gives the government too much information.
"We are steadily heading toward a situation where the government takes everybody's DNA without any controls," said Jay Stanley, communications director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union (search).
"We're heading toward a situation where the government has incredible personal bodily information about everybody that cannot only track you … but it's incredibly revealing about your body, your future health and characteristics of your family members," Stanley said.
DNA contains a wealth of genetic information that can tell researchers about someone's physical makeup.
Currently, 23 states require all convicted felons to provide DNA samples. State DNA databases, along with the National DNA Index System at the FBI, are all part of a coordinated system of local, state and national databases known as the Combined DNA Index System (search).
The system contains myriad forensic evidence from crime scenes and DNA profiles. Supporters say multiple unsolved crimes can be linked to a single felon by comparing profiles in these computer systems.
The administration argues states with aggressive DNA databases have much higher rates of matching evidence to convicted offenders in the combined database than those states with more limited DNA requirements.
If enacted, the president's plan would allow California, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia — states that have set the bar on aggressive use of DNA — to take DNA from anyone arrested on criminal charges. The Justice Department says it's up to other states whether they want to expand their databases this far.
The measure would also make sure the DNA of juvenile offenders is entered into the national DNA index.
Critics say that simply goes too far.
"It's very troubling when people who are arrested would have to give up their DNA. Those people are simply innocent until proven guilty," said forensic science expert Larry Kobilinsky at John Jay College. "The question is, will they get their DNA back? Will they have their profiles entered into a database? In a way, it's providing the state with evidence and if you commit a crime in the future, they've got you."
Louisiana passed a law in 1997 authorizing DNA testing of those just arrested for sex offenses and other violent crimes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas passed a law in 2001 allowing collection of post-indictment DNA samples from those charged with certain sexual assaults and kidnapping.
Last year, Virginia lawmakers approved a bill requiring a DNA sample taken from every person arrested for a violent felony. A provision in the law would expunge the sample if the suspect is acquitted or the case dismissed.
Virginia, which has been collecting DNA from all convicted felons since 1990, has more than 189,000 DNA profiles in its databases and averaged 37 hits per month in 2002. Of the 1,070 hits Virginia has had to date, the Justice Department estimates about 82 percent would have been missed if the databases were only limited to violent offenders.
But with the increased collections, some have questioned whether the FBI can handle a bigger computer system than it already has.
The Justice Department's inspector general is now examining the FBI lab unit that analyzes DNA in hundreds of cases each year after a lab technician was caught not following proper procedure. The probe has led to some changes inside the DNA unit.
Some local crime labs that work with the FBI have also been cited for irregularities in their DNA testing.
"The FBI will be able to handle it," Kobilinsky said. "It'll increase their backlog because it will increase the number of samples entered. But in the long term, increasing the database means it's more likely unsolved crimes will be solved."