Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Magic Wand or Bludgeon?

DNA evidence has been rightfully touted as a valuable investigative resource. However, a study completed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha has concluded that DNA sweeps don't work.

The study defines a DNA sweep as "...a situation where (sic) the police ask individuals to give voluntary DNA samples in an effort to identify the perpetrator of a crime or series of crimes."

Based on an analysis of the data gathered in a study published in September 2004, the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has recommended that
  • Law enforcement agencies not conduct DNA sweeps based on general descriptions or profiles of criminals subjects, and
  • The law enforcement profession, in cooperation with community representatives and legal experts, develop model policies on the collection and handling of DNA evidence.
Relying on its own research and on the University of Nebraska at Omaha study, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has called for an end to what it calls "DNA dragnet." In a letter to the Cape and Islands District Attorney and the Truro Chief of Police, the ACLU raised several concerns about the testing methodology, sample selection process, and ultimate uses of DNA material being gathered in connection with an ongoing homicide investigation in Truro, Massachusetts.

The Nebraska study examined eighteen cases involving murder, rape, or both. Only one of the eighteen cases was resolved as a result of the DNA sweep.

"But, if he (or she) doesn't have anything to hide..."

Ah, but when it comes to DNA, we all may have something to hide without even knowing it. No, we may not be a murderer or a rapist, but who can assure that ultimately our DNA sample will be used only for the purpose for which it was gathered today? Once your DNA or mine is in the state's possession, how can we be sure that it won't be used for some inappropriate purpose? How can you or I be sure that the sample gathered to exclude you or me as a murderer won't someday be used to disqualify one of us from employment or from getting medical or life insurance because of some illegal disclosure made to an interested party willing to pay under the table for that information? Dishonest motor vehicle department employees and law enforcement officers have illegally sold DMV and criminal history information obtained during the course of their legitimate employment. To assume that the high-value, statistically conclusive results of genome mapping and DNA testing will not be criminally misused by a few authorized to possess it is absurdly naive.

DNA testing is a valuable investigative tool when appropriately and ethically used. But the potential for as yet unforeseeable abuse must be addressed and mitigated if DNA testing will continue to be used as a magic wand rather than become a bludgeon.


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