DNA: Why wait for an arrest?

Why shouldn't all citizens just open up for a mouth swab?

May 02, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Swabbing the ol' buccal mucosa for the unique genetic code of someone merely arrested for a crime violates that someone's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. That's the opinion of the Maryland Court of Appeals, and this ruling has greatly upset police, prosecutors, editorialists and other citizens who see no sense to it. If the cops can take your fingerprints, why shouldn't they be allowed to collect your DNA?

We're probably going to need the Supreme Court to settle this issue, and because that court already approved strip searches of just about anyone arrested for anything — even for not paying a traffic fine — it's hard to imagine the justices declaring mouth swabs unconstitutional.

It's a new world, Joe Friday. The collection of DNA is here to stay — to help prosecutors make their cases against felons and to help the wrongly accused prove their innocence. If we want to use science to make criminal investigations more precise and efficient (to help police close more cases and courts send only the truly guilty to prison), then we need to buy into DNA data collection.

I lean toward the fingerprint argument in the matter of the accused and mouth swabs: It's all part of the same post-arrest extraction of information. I think the Court of Appeals was wrong in this case.

But here's a question for my fellow citizens: Why do we wait until someone's arrested?

I mean, if we embrace DNA collection to help the police solve crimes, shouldn't we all have our buccal mucosa swabbed at the local gendarmerie?

I ask you: Shouldn't every American be obligated, from birth, to contribute their deoxyribonucleic acid to a national data bank? Wouldn't that lead to a safer, more law-abiding nation? Isn't this the deterrent we've been looking for?

"DNA is by far the most reliable evidence we have today — more than eyewitness accounts, testimony and even confessions," says Cyrus Vance, the district attorney for Manhattan. He reported in The New York Times that thousands of convictions had resulted from the use of DNA, and he called for the expansion of collections to people who've been charged with misdemeanors — basically, anyone who enters the criminal justice system.

But why not go one step further and have all citizens, on their birthdays, visit a DNA collection office to have their unique genetic codes placed on file?

I know it sounds creepy and maybe even unconstitutional. An outrageous invasion of privacy, Big Brother extracting our very essence and putting it on file. But think of the benefits that would come from a system that includes every U.S. resident. We would create a national census of genetic codes that would:

•help police quickly identify perpetrators of crime;

•avoid false arrests and wrongful convictions by distinguishing mere suspects from actual offenders;

•discourage even the dimmest of would-be wrongdoers from embarking on a life of crime.

That last benefit is important: You won't even think about engaging in criminal behavior because the cops already have your genetic information. Think of how this would affect the next generation of Americans. Parents will be able to tell their "CSI"-savvy kids that they can't possibly get away with anything because law enforcement agencies can use a single hair follicle to track a perp from the scene of a crime. The argument might not work for all kids — some will succumb to criminality anyway, alas — but it's sure to deter many and reduce crime rates.

You don't trust the cops? No problem. If everyone submits their DNA, it will greatly reduce the possibility of the cops arresting the wrong guy. To ensure public confidence, the DNA database could be maintained by a federal agency, independent of local and state police, providing the information as needed.

You're a libertarian or fiscal conservative? You hate big government? Fine. Support this plan: It will make police investigations less costly in time and money. It will also reduce court costs because, faced with DNA evidence, more defendants will enter guilty pleas instead of standing trial.

You're a liberal and feel this is an encroachment of civil liberties? Please. People who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Technology and science have made precise criminal forensics possible. You should applaud the advance and point to it as a virtue of government-backed research and development.

I know a lot of you will think I'm being facetious, but I can't think of a good argument against my position.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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