What if a policeman approached and ordered you to open wide for a DNA mouth swab test? Suppose you were pulled over on suspicion of DWI, check fraud or skipping child support payments and suddenly you found yourself on the business end of a Q-tip. Would you submit or refuse and ask for your lawyer?
It's not so far-fetched a scenario. Both the FBI and police officials in at least 15 states have recently ratcheted up efforts to collect DNA samples from nearly all those who pass through their systems, whether they're a hardened criminal or merely a suspect. It used to be these tests were administered only to those actually convicted of a crime. But somewhere along the line, authorities determined that creating a bigger suspect pool of known people who have had run-ins with the law was a good thing. In short, they figured it was better to have too many DNA samples than not enough. Suddenly, a suspect in, say, a burglary case could be run through the DNA database to see if he was wanted for something much more serious like rape or murder.
It's a good thing when police catch the bad guy, right?
Those in favor of swabbing all suspects point out that DNA samples have helped convict and remove from the streets thousands of criminals. It's also helped exonerate more than 200 people wrongly convicted. They say that coupled with other evidence, DNA is the capper to making an airtight case.
Those against the idea point to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, including body searches. They fret that America is becoming a genetic surveillance society with a sort of swabs-are-us mentality. They have filed lawsuits to protect against what they see as the invasion of privacy.
Courts have generally upheld laws calling for the compulsory collection of DNA from convicts. The reasoning has been that once citizens commit a criminal act, they have given up their rights. But, courts have not fully considered this expansion of DNA testing to those not yet found guilty of a crime. You can take it to the bank, however, that those lawsuits are being prepared as you read this.
The field of forensic science goes way back. Even before it had such a fancy name, in the year 700, the Chinese were studying distinct fingerprint patterns on documents. In England, in 1784, a man named John Toms was found guilty of murder after a torn paper in his pocket matched a wad of paper in his pistol. In 1835, Scotland Yard was analyzing flaws in bullets to pair up with murder weapons.
As the commercial used to say, "We've come a long way, baby!" One of the latest jaw droppers in the forensic science field is called "touch DNA." It's only been around a few years and it's a process whereby the scientist can return to any item a perpetrator has touched and, likely, lift the smallest skin cells from which DNA can be extracted.
Scientists used the technique recently in Boulder, Colo., when they reviewed evidence in the cold case of little JonBenet Ramsey. Using the "touch DNA" process, they were able to lift microscopic skin cells off the long johns she was wearing the night she was murdered. An "unexplained third party" intruder has now been identified as belonging to that DNA. And this latest genetic material matches other male DNA previously gathered from a single blood drop found in JonBenet's underwear. The hard part, of course, will be to find the person with whom this mysterious DNA matches.
Maybe the fiend that took JonBenet's life will pop up in America's newly expanded DNA database some day. It's a sure bet that other elusive criminals will. Think about it. If we can put away repeat offenders, not only will countless outstanding crimes be solved, it might also spare other citizens from becoming victims.
I wonder if those against expanded DNA tests are also against other crime-fighting techniques already in widespread use. Is taking a suspect's fingerprints or blood a violation of privacy? How about if police ask for a Social Security number or home address or listen in on a suspect's phone calls? All these tactics and more have been used for decades to help keep the rest of us safe from the criminal.
I have a problem with authority figures ordering me to do something I think is unfair. I worry about government encroachment on my rights. But if I'm not guilty of anything and submitting to such a test would save others from pain or death, why wouldn't I help the police effort? I look at it like giving blood. Give and you could save a life.