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Expansion of DNA testing by police requires limitations to prevent abuses

The Supreme Court made the right decision this week in allowing police to collect DNA samples at the time of arrest for suspects in serious crimes. But the right decision doesn’t mean the question isn’t freighted with difficult issues; it is, and governments that decide to collect such DNA samples have an obligation to ensure that their houses are in order.

DNA is a powerful crime-fighting tool – too useful and powerful to deny to law enforcement. Just as we support its broad use in freeing people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, police should be able to use it to investigate crimes, more quickly identifying suspects and eliminating innocent people from suspicion.

The odd mix of justices approving this procedure noted, correctly, that DNA is the modern equivalent of the fingerprint. As a physical matter, DNA collection is hardly more intrusive than fingerprinting. But it is also true that, as a window into an individual’s makeup, it is potentially far more intrusive. It needs to be handled with caution and with penalties for failure to comply with regulations.

Issues include:

• Which crimes make an individual subject to testing upon arrest and who will take the samples?

• What conditions need to be met to ensure the purity of samples and who will verify that those conditions are being met? Poorly run DNA laboratories produce unreliable test results.

• What are the standards for testing and storage of samples and how long should they be kept? For someone who is eventually convicted of a serious crime, permanent storage is not inappropriate, but what if the suspect is ultimately acquitted? At that point, the sample should be destroyed. Who will ensure that is done, and who will oversee the process?

Dissenters from the Supreme Court ruling – who, surprisingly, included Justice Antonin Scalia – note that while fingerprints are mainly used for identification purposes, DNA sampling is frequently used to help clear cold cases. Thus, a suspect providing a DNA sample may suddenly be linked to previous crimes, potentially in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

That may be true, but it is also true that fingerprinted suspects may also be linked to previous crimes. Given the opportunities for abuse of DNA samples, the procedures and protections need to be particularly robust, but it’s not an issue that should have forestalled this development.

DNA is too powerful a tool for criminal justice not to employ to the maximum level consistent with the Constitution. Appropriately handled, and with rigorous oversight, it will help identify the perpetrators of serious crimes and help to keep innocent people out of the jaws of a system that has been shown to make more errors than previously thought.

This was a good decision. What remains to been seen is how good the federal and state governments will be at implementing it.