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A Times Editorial

DNA law fails civil rights test

Tallie Gainer III was at a Denny's with his kids in 2006 when he forgot his wallet and left it on the counter. Another man later used Gainer's stolen driver's license to try to cash a fraudulent check. But because of the name on the license, Gainer, a Tampa man, was arrested in a case of mistaken identity. Eventually, Gainer cleared his good name and the charges were dropped. But under a new state law recently signed by Gov. Charlie Crist, innocent people like Gainer would still have their DNA permanently on file in a state database.

When fully phased in, the new law will give the state the power to collect the DNA of anyone accused of a felony and permanently add it to a state database. Regardless of whether the charges are dropped or if the accused is acquitted, the DNA will remain in state custody unless the person specifically and successfully petitions to remove it. That violates the civil liberties of all law-abiding citizens. At a minimum, the DNA of those never convicted of a crime should be destroyed — and certainly not kept in a state database.

In signing the bill, Crist said the state needs to ensure the safety of its residents. But government also has a role to play in protecting individual rights and keeping law-abiding people safe from unreasonable government intrusion. This new law fails that fundamental test.

It is appropriate to collect and maintain DNA samples from convicted criminals. But innocent Floridians who are arrested only to have their charges dropped or who are found not guilty at trial should not have their DNA permanently kept on file by the government. The new law at least should have placed the burden on the state to have the DNA records of those innocent people eliminated. Instead, it places the burden upon the individual to get his DNA out of the state database.

The tight-fisted Legislature apparently didn't provide money to store and track samples, which renders the law's effect symbolic rather than actual for now. That also means the Legislature will have a chance to get it right next year and alter the law to protect the civil liberties of citizens who have not been convicted of a crime. The burden of correcting the record and getting their personal DNA out of government control should not fall to the innocent.

DNA law fails civil rights test 06/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 7:30pm]
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