February 18, 2009
All DNA, all the time

How often should we collect DNA from someone who's been arrested? Some people think the answer should be a lot more often than we do now.

Texas is one of several states that draw DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony and those arrested for particularly violent crimes, such as sexual assault and murder. The federal government takes samples from everyone arrested by federal officers.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo is among the law enforcement officials pushing to collect DNA from suspects in Class B misdemeanors. Their plan could mean sampling more than 800,000 people a year, some of whom may never be convicted or even go to trial.

Experts say that while a few states take DNA in misdemeanors involving sex crimes, none has gone as far as the Texas idea. The American Civil Liberties Union worries that police might make arrests just to fish for a DNA match.

"We think this is an outrageous invasion of privacy," said Rebecca Bernhardt, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

"This is a step in the direction of creating a DNA database of every person in Texas, which is something Texans should be against," she said. "DNA is the most basic and private information a person has."

Acevedo says the samples would help police find criminals and exclude innocent people. The DNA proposal would include destroying records when charges are dropped or someone is acquitted at trial, Acevedo said.

"DNA has proven to be a tool that has gone a long way in proving the innocence of wrongly convicted individuals," Acevedo said, noting the [Timothy] Cole case. "This is an opportunity to eliminate people early on."

But using the Cole case to press the issue is misleading, the ACLU says. As a felony rape suspect, Cole's DNA could have drawn under existing laws.

Well, that and the fact that as the story notes, Class B misdemeanors includes things like writing bad checks. I don't think DNA is likely to exonerate anyone from that rap.

The ACLU raises a good point, but I have a more basic objection: How much would all this extra DNA testing cost, and what's the funding mechanism for it? Postcards provides a partial answer to that:

Facing a growing controversy over a push by Texas' big-city police chiefs to greatly expand mandatory DNA tests, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, wants to be clear: A bill he filed does not expand the tests to misdemeanor suspects.

Patrick's measure, Senate Bill 727, would only expand the current DNA-testing law to cover convicted felons who are sentenced to deferred adjudication and those who are placed on probation.


So far, the police chief's push has not made it into legislation. If it does, it would likely face an uncertain future in the current budget-cutting climate at the State Capitol.

The chief's proposal has an estimated minimum $32 million price tag.

If it's only being expanded to cover convicted felons, then it's less objectionable and presumably less expensive than the the chiefs' request. I'm still skeptical, but this is at least in the neighborhood of something I could live with. If the innocence-related bills that Sen. Rodney Ellis has filed get adopted as well, I'd consider that a reasonable compromise.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 18, 2009 to Crime and Punishment

My concern, apparently not shared by anyone, is that the DNA data base could be used to frame someone.

Not that such a thing could ever happen in Texas of course.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on February 19, 2009 8:10 AM
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