a bird and a bottle

New(ish) DNA Collection Law Threatens Privacy
February 6, 2007, 11:59 am
Filed under: criminal justice, law, news

The NY Times reported yesterday on a new federal law, enacted as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2006, that will require the collecting of DNA samples from virtually all people arrested or detained by federal authorities, even before conviction. The government is hoping to make DNA sampling as routine as fingerprinting. Victims’ rights groups are happy:

“Obviously, the bigger the DNA database, the better,” said Lynn Parrish, the spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, based in Washington. “If this had been implemented years ago, it could have prevented many crimes. Rapists are generalists. They don’t just rape, they also murder.”

But an expert on the use of DNA evidence, Peter Neufeld, founder of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted, isn’t so sure:

[Neufeld] said the government was overreaching by seeking to apply DNA sampling as universally as fingerprinting.

“Whereas fingerprints merely identify the person who left them,” Mr. Neufeld said, “DNA profiles have the potential to reveal our physical diseases and mental disorders. It becomes intrusive when the government begins to mine our most intimate matters.”

The extent of the law — how far reaching it will be upon implementation — is enough to make one’s eyes go wide:

Under the new law, DNA samples would be taken from any illegal immigrants who are detained and would normally be fingerprinted, justice officials said. Last year federal customs, Border Patrol and immigration agents detained more than 1.2 million immigrants, the majority of them at the border with Mexico. About 238,000 of those immigrants were detained in immigration enforcement investigations. A great majority of all immigration detainees were fingerprinted, immigration officials said. About 102,000 people were arrested on federal charges not related to immigration in 2005.

As an immigrants’ rights advocate notes in the article, most immigration violations are civil not criminal offenses. What is the government seeking to gain by collecting all this DNA data? Is it a scare tactic? Jeralyn at TalkLeft thinks that this is just one more step down the slippery slope of government invasion into our privacy rights. First warrantless tapping, now this. I think many people (including Jeralyn) would be fine with DNA sampling of convicted rapists, murderers, and perhaps others convicted of violent crimes. But as currently written the law is an overbroad and anti-immigrant piece of legislation? Think I’m blowing the ramifications for immigrants out of proportion? Look at the law’s sponsors: Republicans John Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas.

While there are certainly examples (one of which is cited in the article) of immigrants (undocumented or otherwise) committing awful crimes, there’s no evidence that we should be particularly concerned about immigrants when we think about crime.

“To equate somebody with a possible immigration violation in the same category as a suspected sex offender is an outrage,” said David Leopold, an immigration lawyer who practices in Cleveland.

So what are we to make of all this, as reproductive justice advocates concerned about both the rights of victims of sex crimes and the rights of immigrants and people who are arrested — not to mention the privacy rights of the populace at large? It seems to me that there are more effective, less xenophobic, and less invasive ways to protect people from sex crimes.


2 Comments so far
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Kyl and Cornyn … well, that explains it. The deeper root of the issue is how to interpret the Constitution with respect to “privacy.” The Framers left the word out; so what was their intent? Under French law, privacy gets more respect than the tricolor. Interesting and challenging post. Like it a lot.

Comment by Swampcracker

[…] pm Filed under: criminal justice, civil rights, law, politics, news I’ve voiced before my concerns about the primacy of DNA evidence. But it’s power is impressive, and its ability to help […]

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