Criminal Justice and Technology: DNA

Criminal Justice and Technology: DNA
Tabetha Cooper
In criminal cases, DNA is an effective and accurate evidentiary tool that aids in conclusively convicting the guilty and acquitting the innocent. The science of DNA analysis originated in the 1980s and has since become a routine part of many investigations. However, this wonderful scientific discovery and its subsequent wide spread use has raised many ethical questions.
Since DNA analysis has aided in solving so many cases, convicted offenders are now mandated to submit a DNA sample for future comparison. With the success of this endeavor have come many debates as to whether a person who is under arrest, but not yet convicted of a crime should be made to submit a DNA sample. This is a big concern as after a sample has been collected it is stored in a national database called CODIS, and can then be compared to other DNA samples found at past crime scenes and stored for use in future investigations (DNA Initiative, 2003). Upon understanding what DNA is, its uses, and hearing arguments from both sides of the issue, the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that the mandating of arrestees to submit a DNA sample is a practical and necessary procedure designed to protect the rights of all citizens.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid [DNA] is the molecule that represents a person’s unique genetic makeup. It can be found in any cell with a nucleus and is the same within each cell of a person’s body. Each DNA molecule has four identifying bases which are sequenced exclusively for each person, with the exception of identical twins. The bases are Cytosine [C], Guanine [G], Thymine [T], and Adenine [A] (Hallick, 1995). In 1985, Dr. Alec Jeffreys explained how these four bases repeat in sequences unique to each individual and how this could be used to identify a person’s paternity or their involvement in a crime (DNA Initiative, 2003).
In a criminal investigation, evidence is collected in an attempt to identify the perpetrator of the crime. Among this evidence can be any number of cells containing DNA. DNA can be found throughout the human body, including hair, bones, teeth, fingernails, blood, semen, urine, feces, sweat, saliva, mucus membranes, skin cells, muscles, organs, and brain cells. With the vast array of DNA-containing sources available, it is quite impossible to do anything, or go anywhere, without leaving some trace of yourself behind. In the 1980s, when DNA testing was in its infancy, it took a relatively large amount of it to create a profile; however, twenty-five years of advancement in technology and technique have given scientists the ability to create a conclusive profile from a microscopic amount of test material. After DNA evidence has been analyzed it is compared to samples given by suspects involved in that particular case. If there are no known suspects to compare results with, the sample is run through a national database known as Combined DNA Index Systems or CODIS. The sample can then be compared to known offenders and to other DNA evidence collected at other crime scenes, potentially linking two or more crimes to one offender. CODIS is used at the local, state, and federal levels and among other things links all individual DNA databases together so that they can be accessed centrally by everyone. In the event that a match is not immediately found, an automatic search will occur weekly. If a DNA match is made during a search, the results will automatically be sent to the agency that had submitted the sample for comparison (DNA Initiative, 2003).
Because of the success of DNA testing and DNA evidence, both in convicting guilty perpetrators and in exonerating the innocent, most states require that offenders submit a DNA sample upon conviction. According to Berson (2009), courts have continued to uphold the ruling that a convicted person should be made to submit a DNA sample. She goes on to explain that the controversy now concerns arrestees who have not yet been convicted of a crime, and whether the sample taken, by means of a swab from the inner cheek, violates their rights as an individual.
DNA can determine more than whether or not a person perpetrated a crime, or was at least present at the scene. DNA can be used to establish paternity and reveal medically relevant information about a person. Just like all technology, DNA technology is continually expanding. Many professionals think that soon DNA will be able to supply information regarding mental illness, behavioral characteristics, sexuality, and temperament (Maschke, 2008). Due to the ability to determine these personal issues, questions about the intrusion of an individual’s privacy have been raised. It has been argued that mandatory DNA samples violate the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the protection of privacy of person and possessions against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Fifth against self-incrimination and the privacy of personal information (“Bill of Rights”, 2010). However, once an individual has been arrested, read his or her Miranda Warnings, and is in the custody of the police, does that individual have a reasonable expectation of privacy? Once arrested, any information that can be found on the arrestee’s person is susceptible to seizure by the police and can be used against them in a court of law. Our great nation deems a person innocent until proven guilty, but once arrested the people have a right to collect evidence from that person when it relates to the crime. It is a situation in which the rights of all citizens are protected by temporarily limiting the rights of the one.
Moreover, as Berson stated in 2009, DNA sampling is much the same as fingerprinting. When a suspect has been arrested, fingerprinting is a standard booking procedure. If the arrested individual is later found innocent, he or she may request that their fingerprints be taken out of the police records. If mandatory DNA sampling were a part of the booking process and the suspect was later found innocent, he or she could ask for their fingerprints and DNA profile to be removed from the records. Privacy is the main issue, mainly because so much information can be inferred from a DNA sample; medical privacy could be breached. But it is important to remember that standard crime laboratories are not concerned with nor equipped to derive medical information from a sample. No personal information other than the unique sequence itself is obtained when a criminal comparison is done through use of CODIS.
In an interview on “America’s Most Wanted” between John Walsh and President Barack Obama, the issue of DNA testing on arrestees not yet convicted was discussed. Walsh felt much the same as Berson, stating that adding DNA sampling to the booking process was no different than the collecting of fingerprints or the taking of a mug shot. Walsh stated that he viewed DNA as “the fingerprint of the 21st century.” He also points out that eighteen states currently collect DNA as part of their booking procedure, and as a result, 200 people have been exonerated of their charges. In the interview, President Obama expressly agreed with Walsh on this issue, adding that all DNA collected during the booking process needed to be put not only into a state database, but straight into a national database (Gerstein, 2010). John Walsh implemented the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which was passed into law in 2006 and became effective in 2009. The Adam Walsh Act authorizes any state to collect DNA samples from any offender arrested for a felony and any person being detained by the government that are not U.S. citizens or are in the United States illegally (Maschke, 2008).
There are many benefits to collecting DNA samples as part of the standard booking process. Collecting DNA from all arrestees can save taxpayer money (DNA Forensics, 2009). Most offenders repeat their crimes and having more DNA samples available to compare DNA evidence to could result in a quick match with less time and money being spent on investigation. Cutting down investigation time means that fewer investigators can do the same job. The cost for prosecution is often diminished as well. Due to the media coverage, almost everyone knows of the conclusiveness of DNA and its effectiveness in identification. If DNA links an offender to the crime, the offender is much more likely to take a plea bargain versus taking their chances in a trial.
Another benefit to shorter investigation times is the fact that the offender will be off the street in a shorter span of time, which could potentially prevent more crimes from occurring. Serial killers are often arrested numerous times for various offenses during the time that they are actively killing. For example, Ted Bundy had been arrested twice as a teen, Jeffery Dahmer had been arrested a couple of times for exposing himself in public, and Richard Ramirez was arrested for petty thefts, drug possession, and car theft. If DNA samples are submitted from all arrestees as a matter of course, a DNA match could potentially surface on one or more murders or rapes while the offender is being detained on an unrelated charge. Lives could be saved by getting these violent offenders off the streets more quickly than conventional means allow for.
The success achieved from mandating those convicted of a crime to submit DNA samples leads to a safe inference that mandating arrestees to do the same thing could bring positive results to the investigation process; especially in regards to unsolved cases and cases with no known suspects. Equipped with a complete understanding of what DNA is and how it can be used, it is only reasonable to conclude that the collection of more DNA samples will inevitably lead to more criminals being taken off the street. This will make our communities a safer place for future generations. DNA is a biometric feature, and as with a fingerprint, it can link a particular person to a specific crime due to the characteristics that make it individual to each person (Foster, 2004). The difference with DNA is that it can be done more conclusively and with less room for error, resulting in more guilty people being convicted of their crimes, and more innocent people being freed of their charges.
Berson, S.B. (2009). Debating DNA Collection. NIJ Journal (264), 9-13 Retrieved from www.genome.duke.edu/education/seminars/journal- club/documents/Berson2009.pdf
Bill of Rights. Cornell university law school website. Retrieved (2010, May 27) from http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/billofrights
DNA Initiative (2003, March 11). Advancing Criminal Justice through DNA Technology. Retrieved from http://www.dna.gov/basics/
Foster, R.E. (2004). Police Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ. USA: Person Prentice Hall
Gerstein, J. (2010). President Obama Backs DNA Test in Arrests. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0310/34097.html
Hallick, B. (1995). Introduction to dna structure. Retrieved fromhttp://www.blc.arizona.edu/Molecular_Graphics/DNA_Structure/DNA_Tutorial.html
Maschke, K. (2008). DNA and Law Enforcement. From Birth to Death and Bench to Clinic: The Hastings Center Bioethics Briefing Book for Journalists, Policymakers, and Campaigns. (ed. Mary Crowley). Retrieved from http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Publications/BriefingBook/Detail.aspx?id=2168
*The Advancing Criminal Justice through DNA and Cornell University Law School were both web pages and I did not know for sure how to cite them in APA format.
**I got information off of several different pages of the Advancing Criminal Justice through DNA webpage.

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