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Sunday, June 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Push for DNA registry could affect all

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Some people in law enforcement are calling for a national registry of every American's DNA profile, against which police could compare crime-scene specimens instantly. Advocates say the system would dissuade many would-be criminals and help capture the rest.

"This is the single best way to catch bad guys and keep them off the street," said Chris Asplen, a lawyer with the Washington firm Smith Alling Lane and former executive director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence.

But opponents say the growing use of DNA scans is making suspects out of many law-abiding Americans and turning the "innocent until proven guilty" maxim on its head.

"These databases are starting to look more like a surveillance tool than a tool for criminal investigation," said Tania Simoncelli of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York.

The debate is part of a larger, post-Sept. 11 tug of war between public safety and personal privacy that has intensified amid recent revelations that the government has been collecting information on personal phone calls.

In particular, it is about the limits of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from being swept into criminal investigations unless there is good reason to suspect they have broken the law.

Warnings over privacy

Brimming with the genetic patterns of more than 3 million Americans, the nation's databank of DNA "fingerprints" is growing by more than 80,000 people a month, giving police an unprecedented crime-fighting tool but prompting warnings that the expansion threatens privacy.

State and federal rules for cataloging DNA have broadened in recent years to go beyond violent felons and also include perpetrators of minor crimes and people who have been arrested but not convicted.

Washington state takes DNA samples from adults and juveniles convicted of any felony; in addition, DNA is taken from those convicted of one of three different misdemeanors: stalking, harassment and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes. The information is available in the FBI databank.

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Once someone's DNA code is in the federal database, critics say, that person effectively is treated as a suspect every time a match with a crime-scene specimen is sought.

At issue is how many people's DNA specimens are on file and how the material is being used. Crime fighters, for example, in recent years have initiated "DNA dragnets" in which hundreds or thousands of people were asked to submit blood or tissue samples to help prove their innocence.

Also stirring unease is the growing use of "familial searches," in which police find crime-scene DNA that is similar to the DNA of a known criminal and then pursue that criminal's family members, reasoning that only a relative could have such a similar pattern. Critics say that makes suspects out of people just for being related to a convict.

Such concerns are amplified by fears that, in time, authorities will try to obtain information from stored DNA beyond the unique personal identifiers.

"Genetic material is a very powerful identifier, but it also happens to carry a heck of a lot of information about you," said Jim Harper, director of information policy at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., concerned about DNA-database trends.

Law-enforcement officials said they have no interest in reading people's genetic secrets.

The U.S. profiling system focuses on 13 regions of the DNA molecule, regions that do not code for any known biological or behavioral traits but vary enough to give anyone who is not an identical twin a unique 52-digit number.

"It's like a Social Security number," said Michael Smith, a University of Wisconsin law professor who favors a national database of every American's genetic ID.

Still, the blood, semen or cheek-swab specimen that yields that DNA, and which authorities almost always save, contains additional genetic information that is sensitive, including disease susceptibilities that could affect employment and health-insurance prospects.

"We don't know all the potential uses of DNA, but once the state has your sample and there are not limits on how it can be used, then the potential civil-liberty violations are as vast as the uses themselves," said Carol Rose of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

She and others want samples destroyed once the identifying profile has been extracted, but the FBI favors preserving them.

Authorities sometimes need those samples to make sure an old analysis was done correctly, said Thomas Callaghan, who oversees the FBI database. The agency also wants to use new DNA-identification methods on older samples as the science improves.

Crime-fighting potential

In the past 12 years, the FBI-managed national database has made more than 30,000 "cold hits," or exact matches to a known person's DNA, showing its crime-fighting potential.

In a recent case, a Canadian woman flew home the day after she was sexually assaulted in Mexico. Canadian authorities performed a semen DNA profile and, after finding no domestic matches, consulted the FBI database.

The pattern matched that of a California man on probation, who was found in the Mexican town where the woman had been staying and was charged by local authorities.

DNA dragnets, which snare many people for whom there is no evidence of guilt, generate much debate. Given questions about whether such sweeps can be truly voluntary — "You know that whoever doesn't participate is going to become a 'person of interest,' " said Rose of the ACLU — some think they violate the Fourth Amendment.

In addition, such sweeps rarely pay off, according to a September 2004 study by Samuel Walker, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska. Of the 18 U.S. DNA dragnets he documented since 1990, including one in which police tested 2,300 people, one identified the offender. And that one was limited to 25 men known to have had access to the victim.

Familial searches of the blood relatives of known offenders raise similar issues.

Such profiling stands to exacerbate racial inequities in the U.S. criminal-justice system, said Troy Duster, a sociologist at New York University.

"Incarceration rates are eight times higher for blacks than they are for whites," he said, so any technique that focuses on relatives of people in the FBI database will expand that trend.

Opponents to a DNA database cite other potential problems, including the billions it would cost to profile so many people and the lack of lab capacity. Backlogs already are severe, they note. The National Institute of Justice estimated in 2003 that 350,000 DNA samples from rape and homicide cases were waiting to be processed nationwide.

Seattle Times reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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