Jan 092011
 
 January 9, 2011  Court, Surveillance

A MP has backed calls for the DNA screening of all men in Bristol as part of the hunt for the murderer of Jo Yeates.

Miss Yeates’ body was found at the roadside on Christmas Day eight days after she was reported missing.

Bristol East Labour MP Kerry McCarthy said if police thought the exercise was worthwhile she believed most men would understand why they were being asked.

Read more on BBC.

That type of approach has been used here in the U.S., too, as when all men in Truro, Massachusetts were asked to provide DNA in the then-3-year-old murder investigation of Christa Worthington. The approach raised significant civil liberties then, and it still does. When Worthington’s killer was finally apprehended two years later when he finally voluntarily provided the DNA sample and the lab got around to it, the ACLU seemed to back off a bit from its opposition and focused more on the backlog of cases such sweeps would create for forensics labs:

The ACLU of Massachusetts has called the use of widespread DNA sweeps unproductive and, when coerced, a potential violation of Fourth Amendment rights of individuals asked to give such samples.

I would have preferred them to stick to the Fourth Amendment issues and the implications of what happens to people who don’t “volunteer” their sample. They may be erroneously viewed as having something to hide related to the crime under the old “If you have nothing to hide” mentality that is too damned prevalent in our country.  As events unfolded, it took a court action filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts to get the DNA samples returned – but while the DNA samples were returned, the profiles developed from the samples were not destroyed. In November 2009, the court ruled against the plaintiff in Amato v. O’Keefe.  A press release from the D.A.’s office describes the outcome.

The plaintiff made three (3) claims against the parties. First, a violation of the Fair Information Practices Act, in which the defendant claimed that the lab maintained his DNA profile longer than necessary. The Court said that the law requires that the records be maintained for a minimum of fifteen (15) years or six (6) years after the case is closed and all appeals are exhausted. Secondly, the plaintiff claimed that his right to privacy under MGL Chapter 214, section 1B was interfered with. He claimed that the State was creating a “shadow” DNA database. The Court found that the District Attorney returned his sample to him, but that the profile must be kept with the case file. The Court further found that no one disseminated to the public or any individual, any private information concerning Amato to state any cause of action. Thirdly, Amato claimed that the DA breached his contract with Amato to return his sample. The claim failed because it was not disputed that his sample and the samples of others were returned or destroyed.

The District Attorney stated: “I took care to ensure that those who voluntarily gave a sample to aid the investigation had an opportunity as promised to have his sample returned or destroyed. We did that. It’s also important to note that no sample so obtained for which a DNA profile was developed will be stored in any database. They would only be kept with the case file provided for by the Commonwealth’s record retention laws. This enures to the benefit of those who have been ruled out, creating evidence in the case file of their innocence.”

But the profile lives on in their files.

The Worthington case is not the only case where dragnet DNA collection was used in the U.S.  It’s also been used in cases in Miami and Baton Rouge.  Its success rate has been rated as about 20%.  Some might think that even 20% warrants its use, but consider what happens to individuals who do agree to provide DNA samples. Are their samples destroyed or returned afterwards?  Or do they or any resulting profile become part of the case file?  And how can the profile be used in any future cases?

If ever asked to “voluntarily” submit a DNA sample, be sure to ask what happens to it – and what happens to any profile developed from it – after you’ve been eliminated as a suspect. And then talk to a lawyer before saying yes. I’d be inclined to say no.

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