Stop, Drop, and Swab

New York Police Ponder Portable DNA Labs

New York City cops may soon have the technology to collect and analyze DNA samples from victims and alleged perpetrators at crime scenes or immediately after making an arrest.

Developed by the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, the portable DNA labs would permit police to process saliva samples with unprecedented speed. The kits are expected to hit the market within two years, and could enable cops to build a library of genetic material from an ever widening cross section of the public.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir has long supported testing suspects immediately upon their arrest. The portable lab would put the necessary technology into the hands of cops. "It's certainly something that we'd be interested in," says NYPD spokeswoman Marilyn Mode.

Even a few years ago, the use of genetic evidence nationwide was relegated to only the most serious crimes. In 1999, New York State lawmakers passed a bill requiring violent felons, whether serving time or on parole, to submit samples for a statewide database. Then, in February, Governor George Pataki proposed legislation that would expand mandatory testing to include people convicted of misdemeanors, a class of crimes that includes things like turnstile jumping and trespassing. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has gone so far as to suggest that infants in New York City be tested at birth.

Civil libertarians say the push for increased DNA testing and expanded databases may threaten fundamental rights to privacy, not to mention Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unlawful search and seizure. Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says he understands the need for taking samples when dealing with crimes like rape, where repeat offenses are common and biological evidence is key. But he says cops shouldn't be allowed to collect DNA from people suspected of committing misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. "There is no legitimate government interest in having a sample," Siegel says. "Our private genetic codes should remain private unless relevant to future prosecution."

Government officials, on the other hand, insist that DNA testing gives cops a nearly foolproof means of identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent.

Dr. Daniel Ehrlich, the lead developer of the portable lab, describes the device as a "high-speed, chip-based DNA fingerprinter." Unlike existing technology, which takes about an hour to create a genetic profile, the minilab can analyze a DNA sample in two minutes. In theory, it will be able to compare that sample with others in a databank, returning a result in less than 15 minutes. By the end of this year, the first kits will leave the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to begin a round of testing at crime labs in Florida and Virginia.

Questions about privacy loom large. A single sample contains enough genetic information to reveal intimate details about the biological makeup of the samples' contributors and their families. Civil rights advocates say DNA evidence could be subject to the kind of "function creep" that characterized the spread of Social Security numbers. Created in the 1930s solely for use in the new federal retirement program, the numbers are now required for access to jobs, banking, and most public services.

Police Commissioner Safir has proposed strict penalties for misusing the genetic database and promises to expunge the records and destroy the samples of all suspects who are not convicted. Whether that approach will pass constitutional muster may be a matter for the courts to decide.

New science, from wiretapping to satellite images to cloning, always sparks public debate. Ehrlich understands why police want his technology and why civil libertarians fear it. For cops, DNA testing is analogous to fingerprinting, but Ehrlich says genetic evidence is more powerful—and more susceptible to misuse—than any fingerprint could ever be. "There is potentially much greater abuse of a DNA database," he says. "It needs serious controls. If I have information from your sample, I can match it with anything you've touched during the course of a day, a cigarette butt, for example. I can prove where you are."

 
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