DNA Databank Expansion Long on Politics, Short on Justice

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March 15, 2012 —  The leadership of the New York Civil Liberties Union today denounced the State Legislature’s passage of legislation allowing police to collect a genetic sample of every person convicted of any crime in New York State, saying the measure will do little to enhance public safety while increasing the likelihood of wrongful convictions and flawed prosecutions.

“The bill isn’t in the service of justice or fairness but rather in the interest of expanding the databank,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “It will have a negligible impact on enhancing public safety but increase significantly the likelihood for inefficiency, error and abuse in the collection and handling of forensic DNA.”

The legislation, passed by both houses of the Legislature during a late night session, requires people convicted of any crime, including low-level offenses like turnstile-jumping and shoplifting, to submit a genetic sample to the DNA databank. It is estimated that the legislation would require the processing of tens of thousands of additional DNA samples annually.

The state has repeatedly expanded the DNA databank since it was established in 1996, but there has been little if any effort to enhance regulatory oversight.

This unprecedented expansion once again does nothing to address the increasingly apparent inadequacies of the state’s regulatory oversight of police crime labs, nor does it establish rigorous statewide standards regarding collection, handling and analysis of DNA evidence to catch or prevent error and ensure the integrity of the databank.

The legislation also failed to address flawed police practices – witness identification procedures and police interrogation practices – that are most frequently cited causes of wrongful conviction. It does too little to ensure that people accused of crimes have access to DNA evidence to prove their innocence.

“Few people commit violent crimes or ever will,” Perry said. “Rather than improving crime-fighting, this expansion simply creates a permanent class of usual suspects whose DNA will be tested by police for the rest of their lives.”

The legislation excludes people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana who have no prior criminal record from having to submit a genetic sample to the databank.

“While we appreciate the exception for marijuana possession, the fact is that the same exception should apply to all nonviolent, low level offenses,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “It just underscores the extent to which this deal is based more on politics than a commitment to justice.”