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The dangers of letting police into our genes

By Rachel Marsden
web posted January 20, 2003

Since hearing recently about the first-ever bouncing baby clone that was supposedly born in Canada to a member of the Raelian "nut cluster", I figured I'd be hard pressed to find a news item much more horrifying. That was until the Commonwealth of Virginia came through with a real doozer: the notion of DNA from potentially innocent people in the hands of police officers and other law enforcement authorities.

As of January 1st, 2003, Virginia authorities will take a DNA sample from anyone who has been charged with a violent felony, even though the person has yet to be tried or convicted. The new measure is only a few slips and slides away from a Virginia law, passed in 1989, that required state authorities to collect DNA samples from only those convicted of violent crimes, such as homicide or rape. An acceleration point along this dangerous slope occurred a year later in 1990, when the scope of the 1989 law was expanded to include DNA testing of those convicted of nonviolent felonies -- such as forgery, uttering threats, drug offenses, and burglaries. Then in 1996, even minors as young as 14 years old who were convicted of nonviolent felonies in adult court were brought under the guise of the law and had samples of their DNA taken from them.

Now, to ring in the new year, even totally innocent people may have their DNA taken from them against their will. In a perfect world, the DNA taken from these people would be stored safely away. It would only be used as a means of either confirming a suspect's involvement in a heinous crime, or in clearing that person's name by virtue of comparison with genetic material found at the crime scene; however, this is far from a perfect world. There are police officers who believe that due process begins and ends with them, and that they are the law. These corrupt "men in blue without a clue" wouldn't think twice about planting evidence at a crime scene if it would lead to a nice public relations coup-or even a new toaster oven for the department. We've all heard about the blood sample taken from OJ Simpson during the Goldman/Brown murder investigation -- 5 cc's of which went missing and unaccounted for -- and the case's investigating officer, Mark Fuhrman, who subsequently pleaded the Fifth.

Virginia authorities argue that because they would only be collecting DNA by swabbing epithelial cells on the inside of the suspect's cheek, such a small amount of DNA could not be reproduced and spread around by someone who chose to do so. Obviously these people haven't heard of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)-a widely used DNA amplification method that allows for quick, accurate reproduction of even tiny amounts of genetic material. PCR is analogous to a molecular copying machine, and it's an inexpensive procedure that even can be conducted using saliva found on a cigarette butt or on the back of a postage stamp.

Of course there are those who argue that taking one's DNA is no different than taking one's fingerprints at the time of arrest. This is yet another comparison that is without merit. Fingerprints cannot be transferred to objects at a crime scene from the sheet onto which they are originally taken; but DNA can be created, replicated, and distributed-even in minute amounts.

Bruce Weir, a forensic science professor at North Carolina State University, acknowledges that "Virginia has adopted a leadership position on DNA testing." He adds that he's "sure this will become national eventually."

Right, and that's what's scary.

Rachel Marsden is a director of the Free Congress Foundation.

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