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Living in a CSI world

As confirmed addicts of the various Crime Scene Investigation television police procedurals well know, people are constantly shedding DNA as they go through life. Microscopic amounts of skin, hair, blood and saliva containing our individually unique DNA stick to toothpicks, eyelashes and hat sweatbands.

DNA evidence is an increasingly valuable crime-solving tool. The U.S. Department of Justice recently estimated that more than 540,000 criminal cases involving biological evidence were awaiting DNA testing in state and local laboratories. That number included 52,000 murders and 169,000 sexual assaults.

Consequently, states and the federal government are busily constructing electronic databases containing the DNA profiles, most culled from the records of convicted criminals. The Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) became operational in 1998 and now contains nearly 2 million DNA profiles. As of September 2004, CODIS has produced over 17,200 hits that have assisted more than 20,300 criminal investigations.

On Nov. 2, voters in California passed Proposition 69, which authorized California law enforcement officials to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for any felony crime. Before the passage of Proposition 69, collection of DNA samples in California was essentially limited to felons who had been convicted of violent crimes. Proposition 69 was opposed by a wide array of privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the Libertarian Party.

The main objection to expanding the group of people from whom DNA samples can be collected is summed up by the Libertarian Party argument: "Once in the database, the presence of an individual's DNA would make him a de facto suspect in all unsolved crimes for the rest of his life. In effect, Prop. 69 would nullify the right and Constitutional protection to be free of unreasonable searches."

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse chimed in by asserting that Proposition 69 "equates arrest with guilt, and gives police, rather than judges and juries, the power to force you to provide the state with evidence."

Does the new California DNA Databank violate anyone's constitutional rights? The fact is that DNA profiles are probably not any more constitutionally suspect than fingerprints. And it appears to be settled law that collecting fingerprints and even requiring blood tests from people under arrest is constitutionally acceptable.

The good news is that the Constitution does prevent the police from detaining a citizen just for the purpose of obtaining fingerprints. However, once a person has been arrested under a reasonable suspicion of having committed a crime, the arrestee may not refuse to provide his or her fingerprints.

Fingerprints have proven invaluable for criminal identification for more than a century now. The FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) already contains the fingerprints of 47 million people. An advantage of DNA profiles is that they are a more accurate way to identify someone since fingerprint identification is not standardized.

Although I have never been arrested, I suspect that IAFIS has my fingerprints on file because as a foolish young man I once held a federal government job. That makes me, according to the Libertarian Party, "a de facto suspect in all unsolved" crimes.

And of course, fingerprints are now routinely collected from all sorts of innocent people such as truck drivers and day-care workers. In addition, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Texas and West Virginia collect fingerprints before they will issue a driver's license. And the new U.S. e-passports that will be issued beginning next year will have an embedded computer chip that could contain an electronic photo and digitized copies of your fingerprints -- all linked to the a central government identification database.

And finally, any difference between fingerprinting and DNA profiles may soon be moot anyway since researchers can now extract DNA from fingerprints. For better or worse, we all now live in a CSI world.

Ronald Bailey is science correspondent for Reason Magazine, where this column first appeared. Public Eye, which usually runs in this space, will return next week.

  • Living in a CSI world

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