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DNA abuse

Doubts over DNA database

See the PBS NOVA feature: Forensics on trial

THE England and Wales National DNA database (NDNAD) has revolutionised policing but could pose a serious threat to civil liberties, says New Scientist (April 9).

The database holds the DNA profiles of nearly 3 million people, and in the past decade it has matched almost 600,000 suspects with crimes. However, some experts are worried that the database is not subject to public scrutiny, despite its gradual expansion.

When NDNAD was set up in 1995, samples and profiles were destroyed if suspects were acquitted. After a series of changes to the law, NDNAD is now allowed to keep the profiles and samples of anyone who is arrested, whether or not they were charged, and those of people who volunteer samples during a police sweep.

Police statistics show that hanging on to the DNA profiles of acquitted suspects can solve crimes: since 2001, more than 7,000 of the 175,000 profiles in this category have been connected with crimes. On the other hand, says the magazine's editorial, a database built on profiles of people who have been arrested at some point is "a haphazard, discriminatory system". For example, NDNAD contains the DNA of 8 per cent of adult white men, and 32 per cent of adult black men. "Does this reflect the real balance of criminals in the UK, or merely who the police think commits crimes," NS asks.

Another concern arises from samples being used for research into ways of determining ethnicity from a DNA profile. "In any other area of science such a project would have to be approved by an ethics committee," and would not be done without the consent of those who gave the samples, says NS. In this case, it requires only the permission of the NDNAD board. It is currently accountable only to itself, but last week a parliamentary committee proposed the creation of an independent advisory board for the database.


Lawmakers try to expand Nevada's DNA database

CARSON CITY, NV (AP) - More felons would be forced to add their DNA to Nevada's genetic database, under a bill considered Wednesday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Assemblywoman Valerie Weber, R-Las Vegas, said she introduced AB382 to help police track down criminals and make sure they charge the right person with the crime.

"The bigger the pool, the more people you have, the better the chance you'll find a match," she said. "It's a public safety issue."

It's also a civil rights issue that requires some sensitivity, said Judiciary Chairman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks.

"Because we're in a new area of the law, we want to make sure that we're not taking something from someone against their will, a violation of their constitutional rights, which we still kind of think are important," he said.

DNA samples are collected by swiping a cotton swab inside the mouth. The samples are usually collected during intake into the prison system, and then sent to one of the state's two forensic labs. The labs analyze and store the material, and make it accessible to a criminal history repository. Law enforcement officials have access to the repository and compare samples to evidence found at crime scenes.

Since the database was created in late 2000, 17,971 samples have been collected. As of March, the database has been used to make 139 matches.

Weber's bill would require all people convicted of a felony - including juveniles - to add their DNA to the database. Currently, the state collects samples from some adult felons, largely those who committed of sexual and violent offenses.

Police and attorney groups immediately raised concerns about casting a wide net. They said they have to be sensitive to civil rights issues and only take the samples most likely to yield a match.

Stan Olson, lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, noted that under Weber's bill offenders convicted of conspiracy to commit a burglary would have to give samples.

"Two guys get together, and say 'Lets kick in the door' and the cops are there. Do we really need their DNA? No, not right now." he said.

James Jackson, lobbyist for the Nevada Association for Criminal Justice, proposed an amendment that would exempt juveniles and limit the new DNA collection to class D felons who commit crimes with force or threat of force only.

Weber agreed to the narrower scope, but prison officials resisted the change, arguing that the broadest approach would be the easiest to administer, require little training and would catch all offenders entering the system.

"The way we read the bill initially was that it covers everybody that would come into corrections. If that's the case, that keeps it very simple for our staff. They know exactly what's expected of them, they know exactly what to do," said Fritz Schlottman of the Department of Corrections.

Schlottman also raised concerns that the amendment misses offenders who are serving time for a crime that doesn't require a sample, but have committed more serious felonies in the past.

Supporter of the amendment said there's nothing in it that would keep a prison official from reviewing prisoners' complete records when determining if they have to contribute a sample.

There appeared to be no consensus among lawmakers on the issue.

Assemblyman Harry Mortenson, D-Las Vegas, said he saw no problem with collecting DNA and no reason why anyone would object.

"I wouldn't mind having my DNA sitting around somewhere, as long as I didn't do anything bad," he said.

Schlottman supported that view, saying, "We consider it no different than normal fingerprinting. People get fingerprinted for all sorts of reasons."

Weber's bill would send about $2 million to the forensic labs in Las Vegas and Washoe County to cover help alleviate backlogs and upgrade equipment for the used to analyze and store the samples.


Random DNA sampling questioned

"Weird. Awkward. Uncomfortable."

"Fearful."

These are words Douglas Campbell, 20, used to described his emotions after police knocked on the door of his Toronto apartment on Wednesday night and asked him for a DNA sample.

Holly Jones

Mr. Campbell's west-end home is in the heart of the most intensive part of the police investigation into the slaying of 10-year-old Holly Jones, who disappeared on her way home from a friend's house early in the evening of May 12. On Wednesday this week, police canvassed the west-end streets where Holly was last seen, asking men "over a certain age" and who met certain criteria for saliva swabs.

Investigators are not ruling out as possible subjects those who co-operate any more than they are ruling them in, Toronto Police spokesman Sergeant Jim Muscat said at a news conference.

"They're all possible suspects and it's all a matter of a process of elimination," he said.

Sgt. Muscat said several people refused to provide samples. Mr. Campbell was one of them, saying he felt somewhat intimidated.

"I felt uncomfortable about it. . . . If I have doubts about it one way or another I'm more likely to say no than I am to say yes. People knock on your door and ask for your DNA? . . . No, brother," Mr. Campbell said, standing on his porch having a smoke.

He said police were "okay" about his refusal, "but I felt really uncomfortable. I didn't trust them."

Police have said samples will be used for the present investigation and then discarded. But Mr. Campbell wasn't so sure.

"I was kind of paranoid that, like, what if they did keep it on record? What if some scientists decided to keep the DNA and in 20 years used it for something?"

Experts say such massive DNA sweeps can have a sobering social and legal price.

Besides eroding civil liberties and tearing neighbourhoods apart, a sweep - known as a "blooding" - can compromise the value of any DNA evidence it yields.

"The police think they are being very clever, but proceeding this way could very well jeopardize their case down the road," said Sanjeev Anand, a law professor at the University of Alberta.

Individuals asked to volunteer DNA samples in a high-profile homicide case may feel they have no choice, setting up a later court challenge, he said.

"Make no mistake, it is a form of state-imposed coercion," Prof. Anand said. "Neighbourhood pressure is a huge ingredient in whether someone actually exercises their constitutional rights.

"I think that person could make a very good case that their sample was obtained by coercion. It becomes a forcible seizure, and police have to establish it was reasonable. And they can't."

The tactic first surfaced in England in 1986, when an English baker named Colin Pitchfork became the first person ever convicted by DNA. Mr. Pitchfork made the mistake of asking a friend to give a sample on his behalf during a DNA sweep of his village.

In recent years, the tactic has been used in Wales and Germany.

While Canada has no history of mass bloodings, in cases such as the 1995 Christine Jessop murder reinvestigation, police asked hundreds of local sex offenders to submit DNA samples.

Alan Borovoy, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said a blooding is "an enormous intrusion into our personal privacy. No matter how it is dressed up, there is an element of coercion."

However, Mr. Borovoy said it is too early to judge whether the Toronto Police have sufficient evidence to justify their sweep. What the case does emphasize, he said, is a need for a body empowered to review such tactics.

John Dixon, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, was skeptical yesterday about police assurances that DNA samples will be destroyed. He said it would be no surprise if they ended up in the new national DNA data bank. "There is an enormous appetite for DNA samples for that bank," Mr. Dixon said.

Prof. Anand agreed.

". . . what if the police store your sample unbeknownst to you? Fifteen years from now, if you came upon a crime scene and a hair follicle drops from your head, all of a sudden there could be serious implications," Prof. Anand said. "I hate to say this, but police are notorious for saying they will destroy samples - and then they don't."

Mr. Dixon said that as a prerequisite for obtaining a sample, police should have reasonable and probable grounds to believe an individual is a genuine suspect.

"If it were me, I would be a refusenik," he said. "The issue of principle is far more important than whatever transitory gain you may have from suspending civil liberties."

Rhoan Samueles 26, and his friend Kevin Smith, 21, said they and their friends were questioned by police several times but not asked for saliva samples. Mr. Samueles said he has no problem handing it over if it helps solve the crime. Mr. Smith was not so sure. He said he would provide the saliva only so police would know he was "not involved."