Two Sides of the Issue

The question of DNA testing is evidently coming before the Supreme Court this year. The issue is whether taking DNA from someone who has not been convicted of a crime is a violation of that person’s constitutional right to privacy, to bodily integrity.

You would think that a committed civil libertarian would be opposed to this practice, and perhaps if I knew more about the various situations in which the DNA is collected, and the arguments against its use, I would be. But I am very conflicted.

Unlike fingerprints, which are notoriously unreliable, DNA samples analyzed correctly are accurate. Because they are accurate, they prove innocence as well as guilt–DNA evidence has exonerated literally hundreds of people serving time for crimes they did not commit. It has saved countless others the trauma and expense of trials.

Furthermore, the procedures used to collect DNA are not particularly invasive. Typically, a quick swab of the inside of one’s cheek is all that is required–no more time-consuming than rolling fingers in ink and placing them on a surface capable of accepting the transfer, and barely more intrusive.

That said, there’s a legitimate concern that information from DNA and other identity markers can be abused. An effort to collect DNA from the citizenry at large would constitute serious overreach; it would tempt unethical officials to misuse the information, and identity thieves to steal it.

But what about routinely taking DNA samples from people who are arrested? The argument is that a national DNA bank would allow authorities to solve crimes like rape much more quickly, arguably preventing perpetrators from committing additional crimes before getting caught.

The 4th Amendment was crafted long before modern technology; we have to look to its purpose to determine how it should apply to these modern scientific marvels at our disposal. If taking someone’s DNA is a “search,” what is the probable cause, the legal justification, for that search? Can an arrest for some minor infraction provide that justification? Probably not.

I welcome comments and lessons from readers who know more about this issue than I do, because I see both sides of the argument. The positive results of expanded testing would seem to outweigh the negatives, but–especially in Constitutional law–the ends cannot justify otherwise forbidden means.

There are some very good lawyers who comment on this blog from time to time. I need your help now! What am I missing?