The New York Civil Liberties Union today released Unanswered Questions about Proposals to Expand the State’s DNA Databank, a document that raises provocative questions about the governor’s proposal to collect and store DNA from all New Yorkers – including youth – convicted of any penal offense, including low-level misdemeanors.
A Q&A, the document cites numerous criminal justice experts whose research identifies problems with the use of DNA databanks – including an unexpectedly high incidence of error and fraud in the collection, handling and analysis of forensic DNA.
“There are so many questions that must be answered, but our legislators are notably incurious,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “The complexity and importance of the issues raised by the proposal to expand the state’s DNA databank – issues of law, science and public policy – are matched only by the indifference of law makers. It’s perplexing.”
DNA is widely considered the forensics gold standard, but the findings compiled by the NYCLU suggest lawmakers and law enforcement professionals have failed to recognize how the “human factor” can lead to flawed prosecutions – and wrongful convictions – due to mislabeling of samples, cross contamination of samples, misinterpretation of DNA analysis and misrepresentation of the test results.
The Q&A also identifies systemic inadequacies in the procedures by which law enforcement officials collect and analyze data on the number of “cold hits” – crime-scene DNA evidence that matches a sample in the databank – that lead to criminal investigations and convictions. The “cold hit” scenario is different from testing a known suspect against crime-scene evidence – which does not require, or rely upon, a databank.
The experts cited by the NYCLU assert that criminal justice professionals lack sufficient data to assess the actual value of DNA databanks in solving crimes.
In its Q&A, the NYCLU also raised concerns about a new “familial searching policy” recently approved by the state’s Commission on Forensic Sciences. This policy authorizes law enforcement officials to investigate family members of an individual whose DNA is a “partial match” with crime scene evidence – on the grounds that a blood relative of that individual may be implicated in the crime. An expanded databank could place entire communities under permanent suspicion – solely because the DNA of a family member is in the state’s databank.
The NYCLU offers a series of recommendations for lawmakers to ensure the integrity of the DNA databank. Among them, New York State must 1) establish a task force of independent scientists and criminal justice experts that is charged with identifying best practices in light of authoritative scientific and legal research; and 2) reconstitute the Commission on Forensic Sciences as a more independent, better resourced and more robust regulatory oversight body.