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Case Study Dna Dragnets Pros

The UK National DNA Database holds the DNA profiles and relevant DNA samples from a select number of UK individuals. It is the largest database of its kind in the world and is continuing to grow each year. Every profile in the UK National DNA Database is derived from a sample of human material, such as saliva or hair, collected from a crime scene or police suspects.

However, many people are against the idea of extending the DNA database because of the potential threat it has to our privacy. While a DNA profile provides very little information about someone, their DNA sample contains information that can reveal their ethnicity or how susceptible they are to disease. The risk of data abuse is therefore potentially high.

In 2012, the UK Protection of Freedoms Bill aimed to redress the balance between the State’s duty to protect the public and an individual’s right to privacy. As a result of the bill, 1,766,000 DNA profiles taken from innocent adults and children were deleted from the database, along with 1,672,000 fingerprint records. In addition to this, 7,753,000 DNA samples (480,000 from children) containing sensitive personal biological material were destroyed.

However, two contentious issues still remain; how the database is put to use and how this is decided. The database can already be used for some genetic research studies and to identify partial matches, where close genetic relatives can be identified from the DNA profiles of relatives on the database.

As genetic databases become increasingly common in other countries (over 60 countries are now operating one) the sharing of data between international police forces is likely to increase. This may increase the vulnerability of databases to abuse and hacking. It also introduces the challenge of differences in the rules for holding data which vary greatly between different countries. Although one standard may apply in the UK, it may not apply elsewhere.

Below are some of the pros and cons of having a national DNA database. What do you think?

Is a national DNA database useful for police investigating crimes?

  • Yes
  • The information derived from each DNA profile can be a powerful tool in the fight against crime. If a match is made between a DNA profile at a crime scene and a DNA profile on the database, it can help police to identify a possible suspect quickly. They can then use this information as strong evidence to demonstrate an individual is guilty of a crime.
  • Searching the database to find a DNA profile match helps identify a suspect in around 60 per cent of cases in the UK.
  • Information can be shared between databases held in different countries to help identify criminals who commit crimes in more than one country.
  • It is easier to travel internationally enabling potential criminals to escape police and conviction. A DNA database may help to keep track of criminals around the world.
  • A DNA database of everyone may make it easier for police to identify missing people and unidentified remains.
  • No
  • There is little evidence to support that more crimes would be solved if a national DNA database is extended to contain samples from people who have not previously been convicted of a crime.
  • If a national DNA database contains more samples it may increase the possibility of false matches being made and innocent people being arrested.
  • Because samples are stored and compared against DNA collected at crime scenes, police may be more likely to pursue crimes committed by members of overrepresented groups. This may lead to discrimination while underrepresented groups may more easily evade detection.
  • If police can’t find a database match for DNA taken from a crime scene, they may then look at partial DNA matches. This could lead to innocent relatives of criminals being wrongfully pursued for a crime.

Does having a national DNA database help eliminate discrimination?

  • Yes
  • The 2012 UK Protection of Freedoms Bill addressed the fact that the details of many innocent people were held on the database. This resulted in 1,766,000 DNA profiles from innocent people being deleted from the UK national DNA database.
  • Extending a national DNA database to include the whole population could eliminate current ethnic and gender bias, for example, towards young, black men.
  • It would make solving crimes quicker and more accurate as forensic material from a crime scene could be automatically screened against information in the database to identify potential suspects.
  • No
  • At one time, the UK National DNA Database contained genetic information from around one million people who had not been convicted of a crime, and about half a million from juveniles. As a consequence, specific groups, such as young people and black men, made up an unequal number of those included on the UK National DNA Database.
  • Individuals on the DNA database may be seen as potential offenders rather than law abiding citizens. If the database is extended beyond just convicted criminals, everyone would be seen as possible suspects.
  • DNA records are linked to other computer records such as records of arrest, which can be used to refuse someone a visa or job. This opens up the potential for discrimination.

Is keeping a national DNA database financially viable?

  • Yes
  • The time and money saved through identifying suspects quickly through DNA evidence greatly outweighs the financial expense of keeping a DNA database.
  • Having a larger database that covers the whole population is far more useful and cost effective than a smaller one that only covers a small number of individuals.
  • No
  • Maintaining a DNA database is hugely expensive. The staff, facilities and equipment used to process and manage DNA samples costs large amounts of money.
  • Expanding the DNA database to include a DNA sample from everyone in the country would require a lot of additional investment of taxpayers money.

Do national DNA databases take into consideration an individual's human rights?

  • Yes
  • The Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative seeks to set international standards for DNA databases that respect and protect human rights.
  • We all have the right to live in a society free from crime.
  • No
  • Keeping a DNA database is seen by many as a further infringement of privacy and human rights.
  • It is debatable whether the benefits to society of having a national DNA database outweighs an individual's right to privacy.

Is the privacy of the individuals on a national DNA database protected?

  • Yes
  • Personal information is already held by groups in the private sector, if people can trust the private sector then they should be able to trust the Government.
  • In 2010, the UK Government pledged to make changes to the length of time DNA samples are kept in the UK National DNA Database. These were included in the 2012 Protection of Freedoms Act. These changes ensure that the DNA (and fingerprints) of individuals arrested but not convicted of an offence is retained for a maximum of 5 years. 
  • No
  • Individuals who provide their own personal information to the private sector, do so voluntarily and usually in exchange for a service. An individual has no choice on whether their DNA sample is included in a national DNA database.
  • Currently there are no comprehensive privacy regulations that would prevent governments from sharing DNA profiles with other groups, such as insurance companies.
  • DNA samples are rarely destroyed meaning that the information derived from a sample could potentially be accessed by anyone.
  • The information contained in DNA is limitless. Information about hair colour, eye colour and genetic diseases can all be found in our DNA.
  • Who owns the genetic information and who controls what happens to it and how it is used? Who is responsible for the genetic information isn’t clear and is a cause for concern for individuals who have records on the database.
  • The 2008 Counter-Terrorism Act allows security personnel to ‘biologically’ track and identify individuals.

Is appropriate consent given for the details of individuals to be used for other purposes?

  • Yes
  • The DNA Identification Act of 1994 explicitly allows database records to be made available for research and development as long as all personally identifiable information is removed.
  • No
  • Surely the DNA itself is personally identifiable information? We can find out all kinds of personal data, from eye colour to risk of genetic disease, from our DNA.
  • Requests to access the database may be for purposes for which the data was never originally intended and therefore individual consent has, almost certainly, not been given.
  • Searching the DNA database for partial matches raises concerns for the privacy of the relatives of people who are on the database.
  • There is the potential for the information in the DNA database to be misused by the Government, security services, police forces or criminals. For example, it may reveal private information, such as paternity.

Is DNA forensic evidence accurate?

  • Yes
  • To reduce the chance of errors, scientists test DNA profiles for more than one genetic marker. The more identical markers there are in two samples, the more accurate the test.
  • The chance that two unrelated people have identical DNA profiles is less than one in one billion.
  • The imperfection of DNA testing comes from the fact that only a small portion of DNA is tested. Therefore DNA testing is often allotted a small percentage of error. However, this does not prevent the results of DNA testing being considered reliable in a courtroom.
  • DNA profiling may be more objective and accurate than other forensic disciplines that rely on subjective judgments and interpretations.
  • The DNA database is not intended to replace conventional criminal investigations but to complement them by identifying potential suspects sooner.
  • No
  • Errors in DNA testing occur relatively frequently.
  • It has been suggested that as many as one in every hundred forensic tests performed on the DNA of suspected criminals may give a false result.
  • False matches between an individual’s DNA profile and a crime scene DNA profile can occur by chance. Poor laboratory practices can lead to cross-contamination or mislabelling of samples, and test results can be misinterpretated.
  • DNA can be damaged by environmental factors such as heat, sunlight and bacteria. This may affect the accuracy of tests carried out. 

This page was last updated on 2015-01-19

The five teenage boys were sitting in a parked car in a gated community in Melbourne, Florida, when a police officer pulled up behind them.

Officer Justin Valutsky closed one of the rear doors, which had been ajar, and told them to stay in the car. He peered into the drivers’ side window of the white Hyundai SUV and asked what the teens were doing there. It was a Saturday night in March 2015 and they told Valutsky they were visiting a friend for a sleepover.

Valutsky told them there had been a string of car break-ins recently in the area. Then, after questioning them some more, he made an unexpected demand: He asked which one of them wanted to give him a DNA sample.

After a long pause, Adam, a slight 15-year-old with curly hair and braces, said, “Okay, I guess I’ll do it.” Valutsky showed Adam how to rub a long cotton swab around the inside of his cheek, then gave him a consent form to sign and took his thumbprint. He sealed Adam’s swab in an envelope. Then he let the boys go.

Telling the story later, Adam would say of the officer’s request, “I thought it meant we had to.”

Over the last decade, collecting DNA from people who are not charged with — or even suspected of — any particular crime has become an increasingly routine practice for police in smaller cities not only in Florida, but in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and North Carolina as well.

While the largest cities typically operate public labs and feed DNA samples into the FBI’s national database, cities like Melbourne have assembled databases of their own, often in partnership with private labs that offer such fast, cheap testing that police can afford to amass DNA even to investigate minor crimes, from burglary to vandalism.

And to compile samples for comparison, some jurisdictions also have quietly begun asking people to turn over DNA voluntarily during traffic stops, or even during what amount to chance encounters with police. In Melbourne, riding a bike at night without two functioning lights can lead to DNA swab — even if the rider is a minor.

“In Florida law, basically, if we can ask consent, and if they give it, we can obtain it,” said Cmdr. Heath Sanders, the head of investigations at the Melbourne Police Department. “We’re not going to be walking down the street and asking a five-year-old to stick out his tongue. That’s just not reasonable. But’s let’s say a kid’s 15, 16 years old, we can ask for consent without the parents.”

In Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, those stopped for DUI or on the street for acting suspiciously may be asked for DNA. Director of Public Safety Frederick Harran credits the burgeoning DNA database Bensalem now shares with Bucks County’s 38 other police departments with cutting burglaries in the township by 42 percent in the first four years of the program. Plus, Bensalem pays for the testing — which is conducted by a leading private lab, Bode Cellmark Forensics — with drug forfeiture money, making it essentially free, Harran added.

“This has probably been the greatest innovation in local law enforcement since the bulletproof vest,” Harran said. “It stops crime in its tracks…. So why everyone’s not doing it, I don’t know.”

While Harran tells his officers to be careful not to push people to consent, civil rights advocates see a minefield in cases that morph from stop-and-frisk to stop-and-spit.

There are clear precedents for obtaining DNA from people who have been convicted of crimes and from those under arrest. Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement must have a reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in a crime before requiring a search or seizure.

But the notion of collecting DNA consensually is still so new that the ground rules remain uncertain. Who can give such consent and what must they be told about what they’re consenting to? Who decides how long to keep these samples and what can be done with them? Maryland’s Supreme Court is the highest to rule on such a case, saying in 2015 that law enforcement could use DNA voluntarily provided to police investigating one crime to solve another, but that case didn’t take on DNA collected outside of an investigation, in chance street or traffic stops.

More challenges seem inevitable, said Jason Kreag, a University of Arizona law professor who’s written about local law enforcement’s expanding use of DNA. Police interviews that lead to DNA collection — particularly involving juveniles—have the potential to create “a coercive environment,” he said. “The laws and the legislatures just haven’t caught up with this type of policing yet.”

Harran echoed that. “There’s no laws, there’s nothing,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory. There’s nothing governing what we’re doing.” He wants private database programs to establish their own best practices.

Private DNA databases have multiplied as testing technology has become more sophisticated and sensitive, enabling labs to generate profiles from so-called “touch” or “trace” DNA consisting of as little as a few skin cells. Automated “Rapid DNA” machines allow police to analyze DNA right at the station in a mere 90 minutes. Some states allow “familial searching” of databases, which can identify people with samples from family members. New software can even create composite mugshots of suspects using DNA to guess at skin and eye color.

Strict rules govern which DNA samples are added to the FBI’s national database, but they don’t apply to the police departments’ private databases, which are subject to no state or federal regulation or oversight. Adam’s DNA, for example, was headed for a database managed for Melbourne by Bode Cellmark Forensics, a LabCorp subsidiary, which has marketed its services to dozens of small cities and towns. The lower standards for DNA profiles included in private databases could lead to meaningless or coincidental matches, said Michael Garvey, who heads the Philadelphia Police Department’s office of forensic science, a public lab.

“No one knows what the rules are about what they’re going to upload into these private DNA databases or not,” Garvey said. “Mixtures, partials — what’s their criteria? It varies.”

When Adam’s father found out the police had taken his son’s DNA, he immediately contacted the Melbourne Police Department to ask what the department intended to do with the sample and on what legal basis it had been taken. As a doctor, he understood what had happened could have far-reaching implications.

“My concern, being in the medical field, is that it’s not just Adam’s DNA,” he said. (ProPublica is withholding his name to protect the privacy of his son.) “It’s my DNA, it’s my wife’s DNA, and our parents. Not to sound bad, but you just get nervous. There’s some collateral damage there.”

Sanders explained that Adam had given his consent, making the sample usable under department policy, though it had not yet been sent to the lab for testing. He said that as long as Adam didn’t get into trouble, the family had nothing to fear.

Unsatisfied and determined to get the sample destroyed, Adam’s dad took the only other step he could think of — he called a lawyer. It was attorney Jason Hicks’ first encounter with a stop-and-spit case. He quickly realized he and his clients were on the edge of a legal frontier.

“First, I was just shocked that it had happened,” he said. “Then I was frustrated by the lack of a vehicle to challenge it.”

Traditionally, certified local, state and federal forensic labs have tested DNA collected for law enforcement purposes, funneling these profiles into the FBI-run Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

The FBI’s standards for profiles uploaded to CODIS are rigorous. CODIS will only accept “partial” profiles under certain circumstances, and all samples must be tested by FBI-approved labs. The national database includes DNA from convicted offenders and arrestees in some states, but not from people merely suspected of crimes. State law dictates when databases linked to CODIS must toss out DNA profiles.

Private databases do not have any such constraints. FBI agent Ann Todd said that the DNA profiles stored in private databases would not be eligible for inclusion in the national database because “those profiles do not meet the strict eligibility, quality, and privacy standards set forth in the federal law.”

Smaller jurisdictions used to rely on larger ones for DNA testing, but many public labs have become backlogged as demand for their services has risen. In 2012, New York became the first state to require DNA collection from those convicted of any crime, not just violent ones, and at least 29 states now authorize collection from anyone arrested for certain crimes. Many states have also passed laws requiring DNA evidence from rape cases to be tested within a certain amount of time, increasing pressure on public labs.

Private operators have stepped in to meet the appetite for testing in cities and towns that can’t afford their own labs and have few violent crimes that would rise to the top of a public lab’s priority list. Bode Cellmark Forensics charges about $100 to $150 a swab — little enough for cops to swab everything from the steering wheel of a stolen car to the nozzle of a spray-paint can used for vandalism — and boasts a 30-day turnaround time for results.

Palm Bay, Florida, launched the nation’s first private DNA database program about a decade ago, working in partnership with DNA:SI, a private lab in North Carolina founded by Amway executive Bill Britt. The lab offered its services for free for the first year in exchange for Palm Bay’s spreading the gospel to other police departments. The program’s aim was for high-volume collection and testing to help solve the area’s high-volume crimes, which were mainly property crimes.

Sure enough, the first “match” solved a string of break-ins at the gated community where the city’s then police chief, William Berger, resided. The burglar even hit Berger’s house, slicing through a screen and stealing a couple of floats from his swimming pool. Berger brought in a canine team, which tracked the floats to the woods, then had the floats and the screen door latch swabbed for DNA. Five days later, a young man was caught attempting to shoplift at Wal-Mart. The Palm Bay police officer called to the scene didn’t make an arrest (the store declined to press charges), but the shoplifter consented to a voluntary DNA test. Turned out the shoplifter was also Berger’s burglar.

Encouraged by that success, Palm Bay police collected over 800 reference swabs from crime suspects in the first 10 months of the program, plus over 1,600 crime-scene items and evidence swabs. Five years later, the database contained profiles from about 3,500 people. “We were way ahead of the game,” said Berger.

Since its database remained siloed, apart from interconnected local, state and federal collections of DNA, the department understood that collecting a high volume of samples was critical.

To start, officers swabbed every single crime scene, no matter how minor the crime, said John Blackledge, then Berger’s deputy. Blackledge and his colleagues would decide which crime scene and suspect swabs to send to the lab, and in what order.

“It had to be that there was reasonable suspicion that this person was involved in criminal activity that fit within the interesting cases that we were working,” he said. “On top of that, the officer had to write a clear report that convinced me that this was either a free and voluntary swab, or that we had to get a search warrant.”

Since then, the department’s DNA collection seems to have become more aggressive. Sgt. Michael Pusatere, who now heads the department’s Crime Scene Unit, says officers work to solicit DNA from “repeat offenders” and people with whom the department comes into contact frequently, as well as people hanging out in high-crime areas late at night.

“We try to get as many people as we can into the database,” Pusatere said. “A database of four or five people isn’t really usable within a city of 106,000 people.”

Blackledge said building a private database also allowed the city to collect more DNA from juveniles. When Palm Bay’s program was starting, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s DNA database, which feeds into the FBI’s national one, contained profiles from over 297,000 adults, but only 35,000 juveniles. “They’re very reluctant to take juveniles,” Blackledge said. “That’s half of my freakin’ violators!”

In the years since Palm Bay started its program, neighboring police departments in Melbourne, West Melbourne and several small beach communities followed their lead, signing contracts with Bode Cellmark Forensics after DNA:SI went out of business. West Melbourne said it ended its collection program in May because it wasn’t delivering enough hits, but every four to six weeks, Palm Bay and Melbourne submit anywhere from 25 to 100 swabs apiece. They estimated that, collectively, they had amassed 7,000 or 8,000 reference and evidence samples spanning the region.

Many of the reference swabs are so-called “elimination” or “victim” samples, swabs taken from crime victims to eliminate them from the DNA mix during analysis. Others are from so-called “field interviews” — people who volunteer them during traffic stops, street stops and other consensual encounters with police.

Most big-city police departments say they do not solicit voluntary DNA samples under these circumstances — only from victims, or, occasionally, suspects associated with specific crimes. When asked about DNA collection during traffic or street stops, Rana DellaRocco, director of the Forensic Laboratory Section of the Baltimore Police Department, laughed and said, “God, I think if they even tried to suggest that, I think that our ACLU might actually have the top of their heads explode.”

According to a document obtained through a public information request, the Melbourne Police Department collected 307 cheek swabs in 2015, most of which were elimination samples. Fifteen were taken from suspects in connection with a particular crime; nine more were taken when suspects were arrested; and 38 were taken during field interviews unconnected to any particular crime.

Nationwide, local law enforcement agencies that have started DNA collection programs have taken a variety of approaches deciding whose DNA they will seek and under what circumstances.

Only Palm Bay, Melbourne, and West Melbourne said they have asked juveniles to volunteer their DNA without getting their parents’ permission.

Since 2007, the District Attorney’s office in Orange County, California, has offered certain non-violent offenders the chance to have their charges dismissed in exchange for contributing cheek swabs to a special separate DNA database — a “spit and acquit” program, as the local media nicknamed it. As of mid-August, according to the DA’s office, over 145,000 people had voluntarily donated their DNA to this database.

Unlike their Florida counterparts, police in Greensboro, North Carolina — one of 16 departments that make up the North Carolina DNA Consortium — don’t gather samples through street or traffic stops. Instead, they started their program by approaching people who were repeat offenders or in ankle monitor programs, asking them to hand over DNA. Now they get samples from suspects connected to, or arrested for, particular crimes.

Police in Branford, Connecticut, draw a different line in collecting DNA. They’re instructed to request DNA from people they merely observe acting inexplicably or strangely. “Say we’re having a lot of problems with car break-ins, and we see you walking in a neighborhood where there are normally car break-ins, and you’re out at two o’clock in the morning,” said Capt. Geoffrey Morgan of the Branford Police Department. When people don’t offer persuasive answers for why they’re there, officers may get suspicious and ask for a swab. “And you know how many people say, ‘No, I don’t mind’?” Morgan added. “A lot.”

Morgan said his officers always get consent in writing, and often also record the process with their body cameras. Police in Melbourne, Bensalem, and Greensboro say they insist on getting consent, too, but other departments acknowledge their databases include samples gathered without it. West Melbourne police say they’ve collected “abandoned DNA” from chewing gum or cigarette butts left by people who refused to sign consent forms. Fairfax County, Virginia, police try to record consent in writing, but it’s not always possible.

“In some circumstances in the field, Patrol Officers do not always have forms readily available,” public information officer Don Gotthardt said in an email.

Police departments with private DNA databases also vary in how they respond to requests to throw out DNA donated voluntarily.

The North Carolina DNA Consortium will expunge a sample if a person submits a letter asking them to, said Stephen Williams, the Greensboro Police Department’s director of forensic services. But Branford, Connecticut, wouldn’t honor such requests.

“They can ask, but we don’t necessarily have to,” Morgan said. “I mean, if they gave it to us consensually, then they gave it to us consensually.”

Adam hadn’t been charged with a crime, so there was no criminal court that his attorney, Jason Hicks, could approach to have the evidence thrown out. Hicks also couldn’t find any case law emanating from litigation over similar cases.

Hicks zeroed in instead on the consent form Adam had signed and, in particular, whether he had genuinely understood he could refuse the police officer’s request for DNA.

Since Officer Valutsky had told the boys to stay in the car, Hicks reasoned it had been pretty clear to them that they wouldn’t be allowed to leave unless one of them handed over DNA. That sounded more like an illegal detention than a consensual conversation, the attorney charged, one that was not justified by the officer’s reference to previous “suspicious activity” in the neighborhood.

“Law enforcement has to have a reasonable suspicion that those kids are specifically committing a crime,” Hicks said. “Not just that some clowns in the neighborhood had committed some crimes in the past — that doesn’t let them create a police state into infinity.”

When Hicks wrote to Cmdr. Sanders and made this argument, Sanders initially struck a conciliatory note, agreeing to toss the sample even though he disagreed that the police had acquired it illegally.

“As long as Adam is not a frequently seen name in our police reports I would not have a use for his sample,” Sanders wrote to Hicks in a July 16, 2015 email. “Since his encounter with the officers Adam’s name has not resurfaced, nor is there another entry for Adam in our computer system. Therefore, in order to end this situation I will have the items collected in this case removed from our files and destroyed.”

Subsequently, however, Sanders told Hicks that the sample couldn’t be destroyed until the City of Melbourne arranged a new contract with a company that handled the disposal of forensic evidence. He also expressed concern that expunging Adam’s DNA would create a precedent that could jeopardize the legitimacy of the whole DNA collection program. Hicks didn’t care about precedent, just his client.

The dispute meandered on for months, with Hicks checking in every so often with Sanders to ask about Adam’s DNA sample and being told it was still sitting in a pile marked “to be destroyed.”

Finally, on August 23—a year and a half after Adam handed over his cheek swab—Sanders sent word the sample would be destroyed the very next day.

Adam’s family was relieved the wrangling was over, but Hicks remains concerned that police continue to pursue voluntary DNA collection, with few constraints on how they gather genetic material and from whom. “If this is okay, what’s to stop police from walking up to children on a playground or a basketball court and sticking Q-tips in their mouths?” Hicks said. “As a parent, I get concerned about the erosion of the Fourth Amendment over time.”

Adam’s dad still can’t believe his son needs parental consent to go on school field trips or to learn to drive a car, but not to give up his DNA to the police under Florida law.

“For me, the crux of it is, can they ask for an underage kid to consent to something like that without a parent?” he asked. “According to the police department, that seems to be their policy. But to the general public, I think that would be news to them.”

Lauren Kirchner

Lauren Kirchner is a senior reporting fellow at ProPublica.

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