Of DNA and Databases

by Theresa Spranger, Bioethics Program Alumna (MSBioethics 2012)

You have the right to remain silent, but your DNA can and will be used against you…

On Monday. The United States Supreme Court decided to allow DNA to be taken at the time of arrest from those accused of “serious” crimes. The DNA sample is taken by a cheek swab and the information is then held in a database. The sample is run against others in the database, some of which are unknown samples that were collected at crime scenes. Occasionally, there is a match and the new DNA sample can help the police to solve one of their cold cases.

The case that went to the Supreme Court is that of Alonzo King. Mr. King was arrested on an assault charge and his DNA swabbed at the time of arrest. The DNA matched that of an unsolved rape case and King was charged with this rape. The problem arose when King pled guilty to a lesser crime than the assault. Under current Maryland law, the police would not have been allowed to take his DNA for the crime for which he pled guilty. King’s attorneys argued that because he was convicted of a lesser crime the DNA evidence should not be permissible in the rape case.

In a 5/4 decision that rocked party lines, King’s rape conviction was upheld. Kennedy, the notorious swing vote on the court, wrote the majority opinion. This opinion was that collecting DNA was like fingerprinting upon arrest and not a violation of the person’s rights. He was joined by Justices: Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Breyer.

The dissenting justices were Ginsberg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Scalia. Scalia wrote the dissent and argued that the ruling was too vague, the precedent the court was setting was dangerous, and collection of DNA has high potential for future misuse.

I agree with the dissent and believe the court made a mistake with this decision. It’s not that I would like Mr. King roaming the streets to rape again, but I think some of the justices neglected to look at the bigger picture. My main issue is with the saving of information, DNA information is not like having your fingerprints on file. Your DNA is a map of you and we have no idea how this information could be used in the future. We learn more and more about DNA and genetic makeup every day and the more we learn the more cautious I become about sharing my genetic information.

What about the DNA sample itself? Is this retained along with the database of information? It would be one thing to have a database, but another entirely to have the physical sample. Scientists can do amazing things and all indications point to more incredible discoveries in the world of genetics. This should give us pause when discussing the creation of a central database for anyone.

A further issue with this ruling is its vagueness. The court states that DNA gathering is permissible in cases of “serious” crimes. What does this mean exactly? What must someone be accused of to lose their right to control the use of their DNA? Drunk driving, shoplifting, protesting? Or is it truly for violent criminals? Murderers, rapists, etc.?

Taking the sample upon arrest however, flies in the face of our nation’s presumption of innocence. Keep in mind that not all of those arrested are criminals. Who knows, perhaps one day you will be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and your genetic information will be on permanent file without your consent.

Making decisions based on what we know about DNA today is never a good idea, genetics and manipulation of genes is an ever changing field and we need to be making decisions into the future. I certainly want to give the police every advantage when catching dangerous criminals, but not at the risk of my or other innocent American’s personal privacy or freedom.

[This blog entry was originally posted in a slightly edited form on Ms. Spranger’s blog on June 6, 2013. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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