How is DNA testing really going to be used in the United States?
On June 3, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled on a case called Maryland v. King. By a 5-4 vote, DNA testing was found to be Constitutional, depending on the state and can be taken via swabbing of the inner cheek upon any arrest. The argument was if it violated the 4th Amendment.
Proper processing of arrestees is so important and has consequences for every stage of the criminal process. The Court has recognized that the “governmental interests underlying a station-house search of the arrestee’s person and possessions may in some circumstances be even greater than those supporting a search immediately following arrest.”
DNA testing has been used for violent criminals for quite some time and there are plenty of precedent cases supporting it in several different states including California. Approximately 300 individuals have been spared the death penalty thanks to the hard work of the Innocence Project, but in the Maryland v. King case, after an arrest in 2009, the DNA testing linked King to a rape case that was unsolved back in 2003 and he was convicted. King tried to argue that the DNA was not admissible and the case made its way up to the Supreme Court.
While reading Justice Kennedy’s opinion on behalf of the Court, I began to think about how this started in the United Kingdom and what it has led to today.
A few years ago, I was traveling to Scotland and when I arrived in Edinburgh. I was confused as to where my hotel was so I went to the information desk at the train station. While I waited in the queue, I noticed a sign that said, “If you spit at our staff, your sputum will be DNA tested and you will be arrested.”
I was completely stunned on several levels. I decided to read up a little about DNA collection in the United Kingdom and I was relieved that I lived in the United States and that collection of DNA was rare. but this decision makes it quite a slippery slope. The scope of DNA use is vast and in Great Britain, has now run out of control with both the testing and the costs.
The UK National Criminal Intelligence DNA Database was set up in 1995. As of the end of 2005, the database carried the profiles of around 3.1 million people. In March 2012 the database contained an estimated 5,950,612 individuals.
The database, which grows by 30,000 samples each month, is populated by samples recovered from crime scenes and taken from police suspects and anyone arrested and detained at a police station. The UK DNA database is one of the world’s largest, and has prompted concerns from some quarters as to its scope and usage.
The database helps in solving crimes and prosecuting previously unknown criminals years after the crime has been committed. Offenses include begging, being drunk and disorderly and taking part in an illegal demonstration.
Many innocent people, including children from the age of ten are arrested but never charged, some for offenses which later be proven to have been committed by another person. Changes in the powers of arrest granted to the police have led to expectations of even more samples being added.
Census data and Home Office statistics indicate that almost 40% of black men have their DNA profile on the database compared to 13% of Asian men and 9% of white men. One can only imagine how that will work in the United States with the racial issues still prevalent in our society, which brings me back to the Supreme Court’s decision this week in King.
It appears that only the 4th Amendment issue was addressed and not the out of control police state-type database that is now in the UK. To keep hair and tissue samples for future use like the U.K. does is probably the next step for U.S. citizens.
God forbid private industries such as pharmaceutical companies get a hold of these samples… and under our current national security laws; this might turn into a runaway train. There are multiple uses for DNA samples and I can imagine this becoming a growing bioethics question outside the criminal justice system.
Some ethical questions:
Who should see your DNA profile? DNA profiles can provide insights into many intimate aspects of a person and their family such as susceptibility to a particular disease and the identity of their genetic parents. This increases the potential for genetic discrimination by government, insurers, employers, schools or banks.
What should a scientist do if they find that a DNA profile, produced for an entirely separate reason, proves that the person someone thought was their father isn’t?
How certain does a jury need to be that the patterns in DNA profiles linking someone to a crime scene match? Scientists presenting profiles at court have given odds ranging from 1 in a few hundred thousand to 1 in millions that they have come from the same person.
The cost of DNA testing is another factor that taxpayers should be concerned about. Costs vary from lab to lab and depend upon the size and condition of the sample to be tested. The simplest, though still comprehensive and comparative DNA tests for a fairly well-sized, well-preserved sample will not cost less than $1,500. That doesn’t include the maintenance of a database holding the DNA of millions of individuals.
Only time can tell how this ruling will be used or abused… on one hand, it will help and on the other, it can discriminate to the extent that citizens may be severely harmed.