DNA Databases Rapidly Expanding around the World

What does it mean for you?

When DNA evidence first became admissible in criminal cases, its use was very limited. If there was DNA evidence at the crime scene, and if law enforcement had a suspect (and enough evidence to get a warrant for a DNA sample), then the suspect could be either tied to the crime or excluded depending upon whether the DNA samples matched.

As time passed and DNA samples were added to state and federal databases, the usefulness of DNA evidence grew a little. Now, law enforcement agencies could search for a match in the database, just like they did with fingerprints. However, just like fingerprint searches, DNA database searches were of limited value because unless the perpetrator had been arrested before, his DNA wasn’t in the database.

As DNA databases are growing, the likelihood of finding a match within the database has grown as well, making DNA a more useful tool in criminal investigations. Just this week, a database match led to an arrest in an 11-year-old Des Moines rape case. But law enforcement agencies have DNA records for only a fraction of the population.

Now, state governments across the country are acting to change that. As of January 1, all suspects arrested for sexual or violent felonies in New Mexico will be compelled to provide DNA samples. Note, that’s all suspects arrested – whether or not they’re convicted. Virginia law already requires felons to submit genetic material to the state’s database, and the state already has information on about 253,000 convicted felons. However, Virginia officials estimate that an additional 50,000 people should have provided samples and have note, and they’re taking action to round up those samples as well.

In Indiana, the chief probation officer in Tippecanoe County has mailed out 1,500 notices ordering people to come to the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds on February 25 to provide DNA samples. Anyone convicted of a felony after July 1, 2005 in the state of Indiana must provide a DNA sample for the state and federal database.

Perhaps most controversial is the bill before the South Carolina legislature that would require DNA samples from every person arrested for any crime. Neither the nature nor the seriousness of the crime would be a factor, nor would whether or not the person was ultimately convicted of the crime. Get arrested, and you go into the DNA database for the rest of your life.

Law enforcement agencies are optimistic that growing databases will mean a higher clearance rate for crimes that now go unsolved, and point to successes even when the perpetrator himself wasn’t in the database. In several recent cases, an “almost match” has led law enforcement to investigate the blood relatives of the person whose DNA was found in the database and to identify a suspect from within his family.

Civil rights organizations, on the other hand, see the expansion of the databases as a dangerous invasion of privacy. Thus far, courts balancing those issues have come down on the side of public safety, determining that the state’s interest in solving crimes outweighs any invasion of privacy.