Endgame for DNA Collection Debate?

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

DNA Collection

For five years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has fought legislation to collect and store DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime. The varying forms of the legislation demanded DNA collection from people who had been arrested for or charged with certain crimes, flipping the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head.

In each of the last two sessions, a bipartisan coalition of state representatives has turned back the legislation when it has reached the House. If you follow the personalities of state politics, check out this amendment vote from 2012. Those voting “yea” voted to remove the preconviction collection provision from that bill. Yes, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County) and Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Pittsburgh) voted together, along with a host of liberals and conservatives and moderates.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee took up yet another version of this legislation. But instead of moving the bill along with the offending language, as the committee has done in the past, Chairman Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin County) offered an amendment to remove the language that requires DNA collection from people who have been arrested. His amendment replaced it with expansion of the current postconviction collection to include all first-degree misdemeanors and some second-degree misdemeanors.

While some civil libertarians won’t like expanding the post-conviction practice, which is currently for all felonies and a few misdemeanors, stopping across-the-board, blanket DNA collection from people who have not been convicted is, in the words of Vice President Biden, a big (frickin’) deal. Twenty eight states and the federal government collect DNA from people who have been arrested or charged but not convicted, and in 2013, a divided Supreme Court upheld the practice.

The privacy implications of preconviction DNA collection are huge. First, the government must jam a swab into your mouth or pluck a hair from your head or take blood to get a DNA sample. (The swab is the most common form of the practice.) In that practice alone, the government is in choppy privacy grounds in invading the person of someone who is still considered innocent under the law and in doing so without a warrant approved by a court.

Then, the government takes that very personal, very private information and uploads it to a database at the Pennsylvania State Police, which is linked to a query system at the FBI called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. Remember, our DNA contains more than 1,000 identifying characteristics about us. And while the profile created for these databases only contain the markers that identify a person, don’t kid yourself. The infrastructure is in place to store more. If you’re acquitted or never charged or exonerated, you have to go back to court to get your DNA profile out of the database.

Of course, every win comes at a cost. The Marsico amendment maintained and actually worsened language in the bill on “modified DNA searches,” or what are more commonly known as familial searches. You and your family members share DNA. The more distant the relative, the less DNA you share. If this language becomes law, a law enforcement agency can go to the state police and ask for a modified search. PSP would then determine if the evidentiary sample is a close enough match to someone in their database that it could be linked to a family member of that person. If your troublemaker cousin is in the DNA database, you’re in the DNA database.

(If any of my cousins are reading this, apologies for throwing you under the bus.)

Senate Bill 683 contains all sorts of requirements before a familial search can be conducted, but the Marsico amendment added language that prohibits a person from challenging an arrest, conviction, search, or any other investigatory action because the law enforcement agency did not follow the requirements. So the limitations on familial searches are, essentially, meaningless.

This will probably be a contentious issue if and when this bill makes it to the House floor. Familial searches are highly controversial. And in its opinion upholding Maryland’s arrestee DNA law, the Supreme Court suggested that familial searches may be unconstitutional.

This bill still has several steps to go before it is finished, so no one is declaring victory. But the House Judiciary Committee, for the first time in three tries, recognized that the will of the legislature- and, specifically, Republicans and Democrats in the House- wasn’t there to pass a bill to collect DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime. That’s a BFD.

Read more about Senate Bill 683