DNA testing has been an invaluable tool for criminal investigators over the past twenty five years. Despite the value in bringing criminals to justice and proving others’ innocence, many questions of mistrust and skepticism still remain. Reconciling the technology with society’s values and perception is an ongoing debate.
Forensic DNA analysis first came into existence in 1988, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began employing this burgeoning technology into its investigations. While fingerprinting and other time-honored methods were heavily relied upon, DNA analysis soon proved incredibly effective in matching potential suspects with crime scenes. Soon after, state crime labs began to adopt this methodology into their range of tests as well.
The FBI quickly recognized the value of linking their federal DNA database to the ones these state labs were creating and thus developed the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). This fully integrated database contains over four million genetic samples and is linked to crime labs across federal, state, and local levels.
Despite the speed and efficiency such a system provides law enforcement, there are serious issues that need to be debated to make sure the technology is used responsibly and individuals rights are not infringed upon verses the need to prosecute those who have broken the law.
DNA analysis advocates discuss the method’s two-fold value in criminal cases. First, by identifying unique patterns within an individual’s genetic markers, the ability to eliminate doubt and confirm positive identification of suspects has dramatically risen. Furthermore, DNA testing has also exonerated countless individuals who have been wrongly imprisoned. Over 300 people have been saved by DNA sampling since 1989, when the first convicted inmate was exonerated.
Individuals once sentenced to death or life in prison now can enjoy their freedom after having their innocence proved without doubt. Not only does this technology help free the wrongly convicted but it also places pressure on law enforcement to conduct their investigations in an ethical and competent manner, given DNA’s ability to right the wrongs done by overzealous or incompetent investigators.
The incredible degree of private information DNA provides about people such as their connections to familial members, disease, and other genetic traits, leaves open the possibility of abuse.
Many challenges to DNA analysis come from invoking the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “the right of people to be secure in their persons… against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Legal precedent has already established that by collecting genetic samples from individuals, such collections qualify as searches and must prove probable cause.
Despite recognition that DNA samples constitute legal searches, thus falling under the Fourth Amendment’s purview, consistent challenges to their legality have been struck down by the court system. Questions remain such as involuntary DNA collection and indirect coercion.
Quite often, samples are taken from trash and other discarded items at crime scenes. Given that such items are thrown away without thought given to the DNA they leave behind, some speculate that such methods jeopardize personal privacy.
Also, investigators often conduct “DNA dragnets” in which people fitting a suspect’s general description are asked to submit to eliminate them from investigation. This can lead to unfair coercion as people who do not wish to submit may face increased scrutiny, despite not being credible suspects.
Partial genetic matches also allows investigators to question an unknown suspect’s family members, given being able to match patterns between individuals, thus asking people to participate in investigations without their prior consent.
In the end, both sides have valid arguments. DNA has leveled the playing field in terms of law enforcement. The technology must be used responsibly while recognizing the inherent tension between individuals’ rights and the state’s need to prosecute lawbreakers. Lawmakers must continue crafting policies that stay in line with the technology’s development, in order to provide the proper checks and balances.