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Local U.S. police use of “stop-and-spit” DNA collection unrestrained

Categories Biometrics News  |  Law Enforcement

According to an article published by ProPublica, over the last decade, collecting DNA from people who are not charged with, or suspected of any particular crime has become an increasingly routine practice for police in smaller cities in Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

An investigation by the independent, Pulitzer-prizing winning, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest found that smaller police forces within those states have been building “databases of their own, often in partnership with private labs that offer such fast, cheap testing that police can afford to amass DNA even to investigate minor crimes, from burglary to vandalism.” Often police forces obtain DNA evidence from children in the field without obtaining a warrant or parental permission.

The article notes that “the notion of collecting DNA consensually is still so new that the ground rules remain uncertain.” While there are clear precedents for obtaining DNA from people who have been convicted of crimes and from those under arrest, there are no specific constitutional rules that have emerged concerning the collection of DNA data from the general public.

As a consequence, local police forces have been building large biometric databases in an effort to construct their own “dragnets”, or alternative systems of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects. As an example, Bensalem Township in Pennsylvania has claimed that it has been able to cut burglaries in the township by 42 percent in the four years because of its DNA collection program.

The township’s director of public safety has even noted that the program is operated without taxpayer dollars because it is funded with drug forfeiture money. According to that official, the advent of DNA collection has “probably been the greatest innovation in local law enforcement since the bulletproof vest.” While he notes that he does not encourage his staff to push people to consent, civil rights advocates see a “minefield” in cases that morph from stop-and-frisk to “stop-and-spit” since federal law on the procedure has not been settled.

Maryland’s Supreme Court was the highest to rule on such a case, determining in 2015 that law enforcement could use DNA voluntarily provided to police investigating one crime to solve another. However, that case did not take on DNA collected outside of an investigation, in chance street or traffic stops.

Another major problem that the article identifies is the lack of an appeal mechanism to remove DNA records from local police, street-stop databases if the person it was collected from is not charged with a crime.

The article from ProPublica also noted the incompatibility in standards between DNA collection by local and federal authorities. The FBI, as example, has strict and rigorous rules concerning DNA databases, which includes only holding data from convicted offenders and arrestees. Federal databases as a result cannot maintain records on people suspected of crimes. State databases, on the other hand, can and do maintain such records.

In sum, the article recognizes DNA surveillance is the new “stop-and-frisk”, and that more litigation or legislation will be required to determine how the practice will continue to be used by local law enforcement.

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