Until now, the federal government only genetically tracked convicts. But starting this month, the FBI will join 15 states that collect DNA samples from those awaiting trial and will collect DNA from detained immigrants — the vanguard of a growing class of genetic registrants.
The FBI, with a DNA database of 6.7 million profiles, expects to accelerate its growth rate from 80,000 new entries a year to 1.2 million by 2012 — a 17-fold increase. FBI officials say they expect DNA processing backlogs — which now stand at more than 500,000 cases — to increase.
Law enforcement officials say that expanding the DNA databanks to include legally innocent people will help solve more violent crimes. They point out that DNA has helped convict thousands of criminals and has exonerated more than 200 wrongfully convicted people.
But criminal justice experts cite Fourth Amendment privacy concerns and worry that the country is becoming a genetic surveillance society.
“DNA databases were built initially to deal with violent sexual crimes and homicides — a very limited number of crimes,” said Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at City University of New York who studies policing trends.
“Over time more and more crimes of decreasing severity have been added to the database. Cops and prosecutors like it because it gives everybody more information and creates a new suspect pool,” he said.
Courts have generally upheld laws authorizing compulsory collection of DNA from convicts and ex-convicts under supervised release, on the grounds that criminal acts diminish privacy rights.
DNA extraction upon arrest potentially erodes that argument, a recent US congressional study found.
“Courts have not fully considered legal implications of recent extensions of DNA-collection to people whom the government has arrested but not tried or convicted,” the report said.
Minors are required to provide DNA samples in 35 states upon conviction, and in some states upon arrest. Three juvenile suspects in November filed the only current constitutional challenge against taking DNA at the time of arrest.
The judge temporarily stopped DNA collection from the three youths, and the case is continuing.
Sixteen states now take DNA from some who have been found guilty of misdemeanors. As more police agencies take DNA for a greater variety of lesser and suspected crimes, civil rights advocates say the government’s power is becoming too broadly applied.
“What we object to — and what the Constitution prohibits — is the indiscriminate taking of DNA for things like writing an insufficient funds check, shoplifting, drug convictions,” said Michael Risher, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.
This year, California began taking DNA upon arrest and expects to nearly double the growth rate of its database, to 390,000 profiles a year from 200,000.
One of those was Brian Roberts, 29, who was awaiting trial for methamphetamine possession. Inside the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles last month, Roberts let a sheriff’s deputy swab the inside of his cheek.
Roberts’s DNA will be translated into a numerical sequence at the FBI’s DNA database, the largest in the world.
The system will search for matches between Roberts’ DNA and other profiles every Monday, from now into the indeterminate future — until one day, perhaps decades hence, Roberts might leave a drop of blood or semen at some crime scene.