Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Presumed innocent? Not under DNA law

Say police are looking for a bad guy who committed a bad crime: Joe Smith, brown eyes, brown hair.

By chance, you happen to be a Joe Smith, brown-eyed and brown-haired, though you haven't done anything wrong. You get arrested anyway.

Police take your fingerprints and, under a new law, swab inside your cheek for your DNA, which they will deposit in a state database.

Our bad, they say when they realize it's a case of mistaken identity and let you go.

But they've got your DNA to check against future crimes anyway.

That's one example of the potential trouble with a new law our governor signed this week requiring police to take a DNA sample from anyone arrested on a felony charge.

This law, to be slowly phased in over several years, would greatly expand Florida's DNA database, which currently has more than 500,000 samples and serves as an extremely useful investigative tool for nailing bad people like rapists and murderers.

So what's the problem?

"Arrested" and "convicted" are two very different things in a nation where we're supposed to be big on innocent unless proved guilty.

Most states already take DNA from convicted felons, as they should. If you're officially guilty, you have to hand over that personal and telling information for future investigative use, period.

But somebody just under arrest?

It's important to note that police have, on occasion, nabbed the wrong guy.

Charges get dropped.

Juries acquit.

With your DNA on file, you're an automatic potential suspect for future crimes anyway. There's a petition process to get out of the database, but not automatic removal.

So maybe you're thinking: I'm a law-abiding sort of person who is not particularly worried about the kind of things that tend to raise eyebrows over at the American Civil Liberties Union.

What do I care if the government has my DNA if I don't plan on committing any crimes?

Here's one good argument for you: Unlike simple fingerprints, your DNA contains a wealth of information about you, like who you're related to or whether you're at risk for certain diseases.

Presumably, your DNA will be shared between police agencies. And databases containing warehoused information — even databases under the watchful eye of our very own government — can be subject to security breaches.

As the ACLU points out, imagine your personal DNA information in the hands of, say, an employer or insurance company in the position to deny you a job or coverage.

Police, by the way, already can get permission from a judge to take DNA from a suspect if they have well-founded reasons.

Same with wire taps — useful investigative tools, no question, but also intrusive enough to require serious consideration and oversight to protect the public and ensure no one gets overzealous in the interest of solving crimes.

Similar laws have been challenged, upheld and struck down, in other states.

Expect much interest here in Florida.

Yes, we should support arming our police with every useful tool, as long as that's carefully balanced with the rights of the innocent.

Including the presumed innocent.

Presumed innocent? Not under DNA law 06/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 12:10am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. A 10-year-old's overdose death reveals Miami neighborhood's intense struggle with opioids


    MIAMI — When 10-year-old Alton Banks left the community swimming pool on the last day of his life, he walked past the elementary school where he had just finished fifth grade.

    People walk through Miami's Overtown neighborhood on Wednesday. [Photo by Scott McIntyre for the Washington Post]
  2. Associated Press: U.S. to ban Americans from traveling to North Korea


    WASHINGTON — U.S. officials say the Trump administration will ban American citizens from traveling to North Korea following the death of university student Otto Warmbier who passed away after falling into a coma into a North Korean prison.

    In this Feb. 29, 2016 file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea.  U.S. officials say the Trump administration will ban American citizens from traveling to North Korea following the death of university student Otto Warmbier, who passed away after falling into a coma into a North Korean prison. [AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon]
  3. Iraqi general who planned Mosul attack talks about liberation


    Iraqi Gen. Talib Shegati Alkenani, the head of his nation's commandos and an architect of the plan to recapture Mosul, couldn't be happier during our telephone conversation last week.

  4. Earthquake jolts Greek, Turkish resorts, kills 2, hurts 500


    KOS, Greece — A powerful overnight earthquake shook holiday resorts in Greece and Turkey, injuring nearly 500 people and leaving two tourists dead on the Greek island of Kos, where revelers at a bar were crushed in a building collapse.

    A partially destroyed building is seen after an earthquake on the island of Kos, Greece Friday. A powerful earthquake sent a building crashing down on tourists at a bar on the Greek holiday island of Kos and struck panic on the nearby shores of Turkey early Friday, killing two people and injuring some 200 people. [AP Photo/Nikiforos Pittaras]
  5. Plant High grad indicted in brawl on Delta flight to China


    SEATTLE — A Plant High School graduate who fought with flight attendants and other passengers when he tried to open the exit door of a Delta Air Lines flight bound from Seattle to China has been indicted on five federal charges, prosecutors said Thursday.

    Joseph Daniel Hudek IV, 23, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on one count of interfering with the flight crew and four counts of assault on an aircraft. [Facebook]