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Legislative Memo: Expansion of the DNA Database

Governor Spitzer earlier this week proposed a massive expansion of New York State’s DNA data bank, stating that use of DNA evidence to identify criminals is “decisive, reliable, and even handed.” Experience in jurisdictions throughout the country, including New York, contradicts this statement.

DNA evidence is not infallible. It has been well documented that human error, fraud and abuse enters into the collection, analysis and reporting of DNA evidence. Prof. William C. Thompson (University of California, Irvine) has documented widespread problems in the use of DNA evidence — including cross contamination and mislabeling of samples, fabrication of test results, and bias in the analysis and interpretation of DNA samples. New York does not have a regulatory system that can ensure the integrity of the DNA database or the use of DNA samples.

Expansion of the data bank will overload crime labs and undermine effective criminal investigation. Even before the state’s expansion of the DNA data bank in 2006, the Commission on Investigation (appointed by Governor George Pataki) reported that “representatives of most of the state’s forensic laboratories expressed frustration regarding the lack of funds available to hire and train qualified forensic analysts.” What’s more, there are reports from around the country that adding the DNA of tens of thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders to data banks has created large backlogs in the processing of samples. This has significantly delayed the identification and apprehension of violent felons. Adding tens of thousands of new samples to the New York State’s DNA data bank will increase error and inefficiency in the law enforcement system.

New York permits local DNA laboratories to operate without regulatory oversight. Localities throughout the state are collecting and storing the DNA of innocent persons, even when these individuals have been excluded as crime suspects. These so-called rogue databases operate outside the law, yet the state has taken no action to close the labs or to require compliance with regulatory procedures and guidelines. The retention of DNA samples from innocent persons is a violation of the law and an invitation for abuse. Before even considering the expansion of the DNA database, the state must ensure all laboratories are in compliance with state and federal laws.

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