Crime

A Better Way to Fight Crime

The brilliance of DNA swabbing

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In June 2006, a minor brawl erupted at Ye Olde Six Bells pub in Horley, England. In the aftermath, police arrested Mark Dixie, a chef at the pub, who surprised them by breaking into tears.

He had good reason. As a standard practice in arrests, a DNA swab was taken from him. What the authorities didn't suspect, but he did, is that his DNA would match that of the man who raped and murdered an 18-year-old woman nine months earlier. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison.

This is just one of many cases that have vindicated the use of DNA in cracking crimes. Britain, which now has the world's biggest collection of such profiles, has found it abundantly useful as a law enforcement tool. In a typical month, police get 3,500 matches between samples recovered at crime scenes and DNA profiles in the database.

Now the U.S. government is set to expand its own database to include anyone arrested by federal agents, as well as many foreigners who are detained for one reason or another. It will add more than 1 million samples each year, greatly increasing the chances of getting "cold hits" from crime scenes.

But the expansion alarms some civil liberties advocates, who think it is dangerous to include people who may be innocent. They would prefer to see the files limited to those who have already been convicted of crimes. By that logic, we would throw out the fingerprints of anyone who is arrested but never prosecuted. In reality, we don't. Why? Not because we impute guilt to anyone who is arrested, but because a bigger database is more helpful in solving crimes than a smaller one. And because the only people who stand to be implicated by such information are those who are guilty of later crimes.

We could "protect" innocent arrestees by discarding such helpful identifying information. But we have reached the conclusion that the potential value of preserving it outweighs any burden it places on those who were wrongly arrested.

In some instances, the database can be a boon to the innocent. In 2004, when Chester Turner was implicated in a string of Los Angeles murders through DNA analysis, a man wrongly convicted for three of them was freed from prison.

Opponents of the new system fear that information from the federal bank may someday be used for purposes other than law enforcement—say, screening insurance applicants for certain diseases. But this is a weak excuse for rejecting the administration's proposal.

In the first place, the potential uses of the DNA information kept in databases have been greatly exaggerated. "The profile's not useful for anything much other than identification," says David Kaye, a law and life sciences professor at Arizona State University. "The 'medical' information is, and is likely to remain, no more significant than, say, a blood type."

The actual DNA swabs tell far more. But those are not what goes into the database. The privacy concern is an argument for getting rid of the original samples—not for getting rid of the identifying markers they yield.
Besides, the obvious way to address potential abuses of useful information is by enforcing appropriate rules.

The government might do something alarming with the existing fingerprint files—such as require employers to cross-check prints from all private-sector job applicants. But you don't need to throw out the fingerprints of anyone not convicted to prevent such misuse, as we have found. You can prevent it by not allowing it.

In the case of the DNA database, the looming imposition on the guiltless is minimal. Under the proposed policy, when someone is arrested or detained, his DNA will be taken and a profile included in the federal collection. If he is not convicted, though, that profile will be expunged on his request.

The American Civil Liberties Union thinks the removal should occur automatically. But if keeping the profile is of no concern to the innocent person in question, it's hard to see why it should be of concern to the rest of us. Those who consider it an intolerable invasion of privacy, after all, will avoid it. Those who couldn't care less won't.

DNA analysis is one of the most valuable instruments ever devised for snaring the guilty and exonerating the innocent. This expansion will make it even more potent.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. “Steve Chapman explains why DNA testing will improve the cirminal justice system, no matter what reservations anyone has about it.”

    Of course, as usual, he didn’t do a very good job of it. As you start amassing arbitrarily large amounts of data in your DNA database the odds of a false positive start going up, especially given the relatively small number of markers that countries like Great Britain typically analyze and store (and yes there have been false positive cases in the UK). This becomes especially problematic when existing methods of law enforcement tend to result in disproportionate racial makeups in arrests, such as the thugs’ war on drugs disproporationately affects minorities.

    Comparing DNA found at a crime scene with DNA of a leading suspect is a great use of DNA. Compiling large databases of everyone ever arrested and then comparing DNA at crime scenes against that is a horrible idea (and yes, it’s an even worse idea with fingerprints which are largely pseudoscience in the way law enforcement tends to use them).

  2. The premise of the article–that building a database of DNA samples that includes individuals who haven’t been convicted of any crime is a useful measure the harms only criminals–would justify mandatory DNA testing of everyone as well as it does the testing of everyone who gets arrested.

  3. I didn’t RTFA, but people have reservations about DNA testing?

    That’s like having reservations about the Earth not being 6000 years old…

  4. I take my previous comment back. I thought people were against DNA testing as evidence or something. Databases are no bueno…

    DNA testing will improve the cirminal justice system

    Apparently, it will improve the criminal justice system as well 😉

  5. We could “protect” innocent arrestees by discarding such helpful identifying information. But we have reached the conclusion that the potential value of preserving it outweighs any burden it places on those who were wrongly arrested.

    Oh, “we” have, have “we”?

    “You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  6. I don’t see why a database is required to be kept. If you are a suspect in a crime, then your DNA can be collected and compared against the evidence found. In fact, if I was a suspect, I would request it if I was innocent.

  7. Brian, when false positives are routinely incarcerated rather than retested and recompared, I’d agree. I’m willing to bet however, that larger DNA databases would reduce the rate of false arrest and incarceration when compared to current rates which are based on looser evidentiary trails such as eyewitness/victim testimony, circumstantial evidence and the too frequently introduced hearsay.

    These lesser standards, when combined with overzealous prosecution, are being used everyday and undoubtedly incarcerate innocents, particularly those who can’t afford decent counsel. The largest share of whom probably make up the protected classes you are most concerned with.

  8. Wow…a utilitarian argument for invading privacy. A person telling me that a database is only for limited purposes. A writer ridiculing “Chicken Littles” who don’t want their DNA collected.

    Ya, I’ve heard all these things before. But they were from government officials and other assorted authoritarians, not from an article in a “libertarian” magazine (yes, feel free to think). Sometimes I think some of the writers around here love technology more than they do privacy.

  9. What makes anyone think that DNA samples couldn’t be manipulated by authorities?

  10. Brian, when false positives are routinely incarcerated rather than retested and recompared, I’d agree.

    Although we already have prosecutors and judges refusing to retest after an initial positive, with the suspect incarcerated, so we’re already there, Tbone.

    The notion that we should keep databases on everyone to help solve crimes scales too easily. Databases of gun purchases and gun owners? Databases of financial transactions? If those cause you qualms, why doesn’t a DNA database do the same?

  11. Two points of the article are particularly ludicrous:

    1) “The government might do something alarming with the existing fingerprint files-such as require employers to cross-check prints from all private-sector job applicants. But you don’t need to throw out the fingerprints of anyone not convicted to prevent such misuse, as we have found. You can prevent it by not allowing it.”

    This concept builds on the well known principle that if governments collect information, and you tell them not to use it, then they won’t. There is TONS of empirical data supporting the fact that that is how government works.

    2) The article extols the benefits of DNA testing. Agreed. So why not just do blanket DNA matches. If a woman is found murdered, just start going door to door. I mean, hey, it will find the guilty person, and if you’re innocent you have nothing to fear.

    Or…you can say that DNA should be used in conjunction with an investigation. In that case, that’s no different than the status quo. If there is DNA available at the scene of the crime, then it will allow you to test the innocence or guilt of a person who your investigation leads you to. Most of the exonerations that are happening now are coming from an age and time in which DNA tests were not widely avaiable. It is a different circumstance now.

  12. An even better method may be to just collect and retain DNA samples from everyone at birth. If you never commit a crime, then you should have no problem with the state being able to trace you to everywhere you’ve ever been.

  13. In some instances, the database can be a boon to the innocent. In 2004, when Chester Turner was implicated in a string of Los Angeles murders through DNA analysis, a man wrongly convicted for three of them was freed from prison.

    Wouldn’t the innocent man have been freed even if there were no database, just because his DNA didn’t match the evidence? I know, I know–that doesn’t always happen. Maybe the prosecutor was more likely to acquiesce to the innocent man’s release because he had Turner to pin the murders on. Still, that’s a weaker argument than the one Mr. Chapman put forth.

  14. Chapman and Balko should have a chat.

  15. Besides, the obvious way to address potential abuses of useful information is by enforcing appropriate rules.

    ROTFL

  16. Under the proposed policy, when someone is arrested or detained, his DNA will be taken and a profile included in the federal collection. If he is not convicted, though, that profile will be expunged on his request.

    This is a policy I could live with. There is one down side of DNA evidence not discussed in the article. A murderer could falsely accuse a sibling, maybe charging his with breaking and entering, so that the police would take the siblings DNA and match it with the DNA at the original murder scene. Because murderers already have low tech ways to frame people, this problem does not disqualify DNA evidence. It just means juries should be aware of the flaws in DNA evidence.

  17. I think a great many objections could be alleviated if the government didn’t make so many things criminal.

  18. “And because the only people who stand to be implicated by such information are those who are guilty of later crimes.”

    So the only people that have to worry about their cars being searched are those that have something to hide? With that said, let’s repeal the 4th amendment. Only those guilty of a crime have anything to worry about.

  19. Thanks Guys! I’ve been wondering at some of the ideas expressed here on this “libertarian” site from time to time. It is heartening to see this latest one so roundly and universally criticized.

  20. Elemenope stole my joke right out from under me. Damn you, sir! Damn you to hell!

    Oh, and you, too, Chapman. “What you mean, ‘we’, white man?”

    Does Reason have no editorial staff at all? Because I got two paragraphs into the fucking article and went back to check the website heading, not believing I was in the right place. What next? You guys gonna endorse Bob Barr for the LP candidate?

  21. No. Also LMNOP wins this thread.

    This article displays the following:
    1. Extreme trust in government (both ethically and in terms of functionality)
    2. A lack of respect for the right to privacy
    3. Bias against anyone who might (for example) disobey an unjust law

    I know not all libertarian and associated thinkers care about all three of these – but none of them?

  22. Under the proposed policy, when someone is arrested or detained, his DNA will be taken and a profile included in the federal collection.

    Someone arrested or detained can have their DNA tested and used for the purposes of the investigation or related investigations (a string of robbberies, murders, etc.), but I see no reason to put it on file in a federal database. If they are a suspect in other unrelated cases, then their DNA can be sampled for those cases after a showing of probably cause, like any other search.

  23. Steve Chapman should never write for Reason again, in fact, he should probably avoid writing about civil liberties from now on. And if Reason continues to post articles like this, it will officially become a lower-circulation Newsweek. Thanks for defending the quasi-fascist status quo, Reason, you now serve no purpose whatsoever!

  24. I can remember a time when scientific experts would say that DNA evidence should only ever be used to exclude a suspect, and should never be used to convict. DNA profiling technology has improved since then, so that caution probably doesn’t need to be worded quite as strongly any more, but even so, this was a weird article for a libertarian magazine.

    I had the same thought as Hugh: By Chapman’s line of reasoning, the government ought to just collect a DNA sample from everyone at birth (and at the borders, for any furriners entering the country). There’s no possible way that could be abused, is there? I mean, we’ll tell the government not to abuse it!

  25. The American Civil Liberties Union thinks the removal should occur automatically. But if keeping the profile is of no concern to the innocent person in question, it’s hard to see why it should be of concern to the rest of us. Those who consider it an intolerable invasion of privacy, after all, will avoid it. Those who couldn’t care less won’t.

    Should have just said “only those with something to hide will care…”

    Pretty unconvincing article.

  26. I’m waiting for when I need to give DNA just to continue working. I went to renew my real estate license (for the tenth time!), however this year they want a complete set of ten fingerprints.

    The fingerprinting company (IBT, wonder how much they contributed to political campaigns?!?) won’t take my fingerprints without my:

    Gender
    Nationality
    Citizenship status
    Race
    Skin Tone
    Ethnicity
    Date of Birth
    Social Security Number
    Place of Birth
    Known Alias Names
    Known Alias Dates of Birth
    Address
    Phone number
    Drivers License # and state

    Without this, they will not fingerprint me, and I cannot renew my license. But nobody, including Criminal Records Unit at TX DPS, management at IBT, and TREC, can point to a LEGAL REQUIREMENT for me to provide such information.

    I am only legally obligated to provide fingerprints, but the DPS is not legally allowed to disseminate criminal records history without “one or more” of the above pieces of info. Can’t wait for when they ask for my DNA, maybe a hair sample, and in a few years possibly my right arm and firstborn child.

  27. Two issues:

    1) Do we trust the gov’t to accurately and honestly maintain this database?

    2) I split with my GF six months ago. I gave her the car. I am certain that there are significant samples of my DNA still in that vehicle. If she were to come to harm next week, should I be implicated?

    Marcus

  28. Has may first been declared the new April fools, or opposite day, or dispatches from bizarro-world day?

    This is not an argument I would expect to see here or in any other libertarian publication.
    The crux of the entire argument here is that “the government is trustworthy”

    Do we really now think that

    a) The Government being able to trace us throughout our lives is not a potential problem?

    b) That we will never face a situation in which police looking for an arrest or prosecutors looking for a conviction might fudge the results?

    c) That no one on a police force will ever be tempted to plant DNA that they now have access to? (for whatever reason)

    d) That the government is really trustworthy to enforce these “appropriate rules” that they will never have a logistical failure OR a conflict of interests, and that they are incapable of the corruption needed to misappropriate DNA samples.

  29. Sorry, did I miss something? Isn’t this Reason Magazine? Robert Nozick would be quite sickened by this article. Whichever editor allowed this article to be published on this site should be fired. I think I just heard Aaron Russo flip over too. This was not a libertarian point of view. Giving up liberty for security does not make us more free or secure! Besides,are we citizens or are we subjects?

  30. You’re a month late – try again next year.

  31. This article sucks donkey balls on many levels. Various of the problems have already been addressed above. However, as to the concern of governmental abuse – people note abuses that might occur once the government has the database. Corrupt lab techinicians, shady DA’s, etc… But what about abuses in making the database?

    You write, “Under the proposed policy, when someone is arrested or detained, his DNA will be taken and a profile included in the federal collection.” What the fuck does that mean? Arrested (for what? felony only or misdemeanor’s also?)

    If I am detained briefly because I am being issued a traffic citation, do they get to take a buccal swab of my mouth on the side of the highway? Or, in the common cop bait and switch – i get taken down to the station on a relatively minor crime, waive Miranda and talk, then they steer the conversation about another, often much more serious, crime. Why not the same with “detain.” Detain me on some pimped up charges just so they can detain me to get my DNA on the crime they really suspect me of committing but for which they have no probable cause to arrest – – probable cause that would be provided in an unconsented unwarranted seizure of my DNA. In other words, it encourages fishing expeditions by the police.

    The creation and expansion of this database will be lazy cop priority #1. So all types of bullshit will be pulled to get people to give up their DNA. What the fuck is wrong with Reason? Do you want to live in a police state or what? Yes, its great that DNA technology can help free the innocent – but this whole, “if your innocent you have nothing to hide” horseshit is completely unacceptable. John Ashcroft could have wrote this piece, thats how shitty it is.

  32. Oh look, Reason publishes another statist article by Chapman. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you. *yawn* I have to say, the Mises crowd sure has you asshats pegged.

  33. I automatically had opposed this law out of concern for civil liberties, and my automatic mistrust of most searches and seizures (like Bush’s wiretap program). However, what kept nagging at me was the feeling that maybe the law wasn’t so bad because it would actually help id criminals, and as you mentioned, provide very little info about non-criminals. Now, with the understanding that there’s an “opt-out” clause for people who have been exonerated, I don’t mind the policy, so long as the person is made aware of this right. I am beginning to really appreciate that libertarians are beginning to take a much more reasoned, moderate view when it comes to policy, without giving up our core beliefs and concerns. It makes me think that maybe there’s a mainstream future for us.

  34. It will start with DNA swabs for anyone arrested. Then it will become a requirement to apply for an SBA loan or a federally backed student loan. Eventually, it will become so commonplace that someone will suggest that we should start swabbing people at birth. Then it will happen. It sounds absurd now, but, as we all know, governments have learned that taking freedoms and oppressing people incrimentally over time is easier than doing it all at once. In 10-15 years, any hospital that recieves any federal funds WILL be swabbing every child at birth.

  35. The use of DNA evidence for specific crimes, ie taking the dna of a suspect to compare against evidence, I think is fine. It leads to better enforcement of the law. But databases just pose so much potential for abuse, and also holds the absurd idea that the all the laws that it would be used to enforce are just laws. There has to be some balance of privacy versus necessity to enforce the law, because we do conceptually want our laws enforced, provided they are good laws. But since we cannot guarantee that all the laws will be good, we have things like the 4th amendment to protect our privacy against an intrusive government trying to enforce bad laws. Having a database of the innocent breaks this concept of needing protection from abuse by the government.

  36. “But if keeping the profile is of no concern to the innocent person in question, it’s hard to see why it should be of concern to the rest of us. ”

    If only the guilty have something to be worried about why don’t we just give the police access to our emails, hand over the keys to our homes and let the cops place video cameras in our living rooms. We should all be ok with this, because if you’re innocent you have nothing to fear.

  37. RE: DNA DATABASE A GOOD THING

    Hey Steve, are you on drugs? No, wait a minute. Is REASON Magazine on drugs?

    I have noticed over the past few years, the magazine and it’s contributors are steadily moving away from Libertarianism.

    You guys call yourselves Libertarians, but I notice more and more articles supporting increases in the Nanny State, The Surveillance State..

    That’s fine, just don’t keep calling yourselves Libertarians, while at the same time supporting bigger Govt.

  38. doesnt forced dna sampling violate your fifth amendment rights?

  39. Haa, yeah. Life is all about finding out the “guilty” ones and “innocent” ones, right? Boy that’s sad.

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