Federal law requires, quite reasonably, that convicted sex offenders are tested and added to a national database. State laws regulating other kinds of data collection vary greatly. In some states it is legal for the police to obtain and file the genetic profile of anyone merely accused of a crime. In other states people who go to prison for unpaid parking fines are tested and added to the database (Grand, 2002). It’s completely understandable that the police want to get as many DNA profiles on their databases. It makes their work better and subsequently the streets safer.An argument can be made that law-abiding citizens have nothing to be afraid of if they are on police databases, as they have done nothing wrong.
In an investigation in Ann Arbor, Police decided they would keep the lab reports of 160 innocent men for thirty years and use them for solving future cases. Imagine for a moment what information will be available to anyone with a person’s biological sample in thirty years time.This is where the lines get fuzzy between our safety and our privacy. With a DNA sample, the police have identification material.
As our understanding of the human genome grows so does the potential for extracting other information as well, such as medical information like a person’s predisposition to disease, metal health and even possibly sexual orientation (Genomic research, n.d.). It may seem a little paranoid to be worried about where that information will end up, but there are legal precedents in law enforcement that allow different government departments to share information, provided that the information was obtained legally.For example, if a person is a suspect in a homicide and a search warrant is obtained, papers seized from the person’s house can be given to the IRS if they raise the suspicion of tax evasion. Since 1994, there are penalties for private companies caught trading this kind of information.
If the government, however, thinks it’s in the public’s interest to pass around our genetic information all they have to do is prove in court that they have a reasonable reason to do so (Grand, 2002). There is a critical tension between a government doing what protects its citizens and behaving unethically, not matter how good its intentions.There are states, New York and California for example, where release forms for DNA evidence state clearly what case(s) the information is going to be used for and if the samples will be subsequently destroyed (Grand, 2002). Perhaps all states should at the very least inform anyone providing a sample how it will be used. It may also be a good idea to allow police departments to keep the lab results pertinent to identification, but not the original biological material, decreasing the risk of citizens’ privacy being compromised.Opening a can of legal worms The investigation at Ann Arbor also highlighted another issue, that of how the DNA evidence is collected. Police used a DNA dragnet whereby, with only a vague description of the perpetrator, they tested scores of local men in an attempt to flush out suspects. It is a technique often used successfully in the UK for cases where police try to “flush out” a suspect because they do not have any good leads.
In the case where there is no reason for the police to suspect an individual in particular, that person must volunteer their help. The laws that govern collection of evidence don’t allow for the subjects to be threatened or coerced in order to protect their Fourth Amendment rights. Instead, in Ann Arbor, police told their “suspects”, “giving a sample was the only way to clear their names (Grand, 2002, p. 2279)”. The danger here is not just infringement on our constitutional rights but also that evidence obtained in any way not strictly legal can be inadmissible in court. When critical evidence is rendered useless, dangerous criminals may not be charged with their crimes.
There are other instances in which the law needs to catch up with technology commonly used every day. For example, there are no laws regarding third party DNA samples. Kerry Kotler was cleared of two counts of rape and burglary by a DNA test showing he was not at either of the crime scenes. He still had to wait a year in prison for the victim’s husband to give a DNA elimination sample (Conners, et al, 1996).Imagine for a moment that you had the grave misfortune to be convicted for a crime you didn’t commit before genetic fingerprinting was available. Oregon has laws that allow judges to dissolve convictions and consider new evidence even when the date for appeals has passed but if you were convicted in another state, you may have no chance to prove your innocence. States differ on what evidence is admissible post conviction and have different restrictions on how long appeals will be heard.The evidence in your case may have been mislaid or destroyed because until new DNA evidence reopened the case, there would have been no reason to grant you an appeal.
DNA evidence may not have been collected in the first place. Your time to appeal may have expired anyway, leaving you in prison until your unjustified sentence was served. In most states it would be your financial responsibility to pay for any post conviction testing done.Should you be waiting to appeal to a federal court, anti-terrorist laws introduced in the mid- nineties would cut down your time to obtain Habeas corpus relief to only three months if you were on death row (Connors, et al, 1996). This scenario illustrates that our laws are far from perfect and although it may not be practical to suggest changing them. Genetic fingerprinting, though, has shown problems with in the existing system.
When this has caused injustice, greater flexibility may be appropriate in enforcing the law.ConclusionWe need to be aware that this tool is still in its infancy and must be firmly guided with laws and laboratory standards, or it could grow into a troublesome teenager that creates all sorts of problems, including compromising our constitutional rights. The danger, too, is that if we embrace genetic fingerprinting without addressing it’s problems it could easily lead to a backlash against a technology that has the potential to make our world safer.Looking into the use of genetic fingerprinting, we see police misconduct and shocking misbehavior by a professional witness Fred Zain. There are glaring inconsistencies in post conviction justice where one is guilty until s/he can prove his or her innocence without any help or resources.
It becomes apparent that police can obtain our personal data in a legal grey area, introducing the possibility of infringements on our future privacy. Genetic fingerprinting technology has also had the unforeseen consequence of showing us some flaws in our justice system that need attention.With technology comes responsibility.
It is our right to demand regulation of this new technology and perhaps even more importantly investigation of the problems that using it have uncovered in the police and justice systems.Works CitedBilliot, T. (December 2003). DNA Testing revives old cases.
The Advertiser. Accessed 12/13/2003 from http://www.theadvertiser.com/news/html/D7D3DBD4-9416-47BE-A3A0-C77CA2976139.shtml Bowen R.
A. DVM, PhD (1996). Strengths, limitations and controversies of DNA testing. General and Medical Genetics. Accessed 25/1/04 from http://arbl.cvmbs.colostate.edu/hbooks/genetics/medgen/index.html