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State Politics Sat May 23 2009
With Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) saying, "we're approaching George Orwell's '1984' right now,"HR0935, a bill that would would require the involuntary surrender of DNA information from anyone arrested for a felony, was narrowly voted down this week. After passing by a wide margin in the Illinois House, where it had been introduced by Susana Mendoza, the Illinois Senate, where Matt Murphy was the chief proponent, showed more respect for civil liberties.
Never mind that many felonies have absolutely nothing to do with physical crimes or bodily fluids, where DNA evidence could neither incriminate nor exculpate the accused. The more troubling suggestion is the repetition of that old canard, "the innocent have nothing to fear." Under that same Orwellian illogic, we might as well repeal most of the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution.
Many arrestees are, in fact, innocent. All are entitled to that presumption. That's why we have judges, juries, and trials. Moreover, information is power, and the history of power is that it is abused. Not sometimes: nearly always. The innocent have plenty to fear when self-interest, hubris, bias, or haste taints decisionmaking.
Haven't we all seen, in our lifetime, agencies of government do things that we never imagined Americans would be capable of, from corruption to torture? Any organization can have bad apples, and even good police forces sometimes have bad cops. We have seen officers, even management, doing the bidding of organized crime, extracting false confessions from suspects, targeting political dissidents. We also know that evidence gets planted from time to time.
Even if government were 100% free of bad actors, assembling portfolios and databases on citizens invites abuse by third parties. Expanding the accumulation of DNA information on Americans facilitates everything from petty harassment in personal vendettas to the outright framing of the innocent. How many instances have we seen of government databases being hacked, supposedly confidential information being leaked for political purposes, and government secrets being sold even when they implicate national security? Meanwhile, identity crimes spread faster than swine flu.
Nor is DNA evidence infallible. Studies have documented the many chances for human error in the testing process, and how stray DNA from someone unconnected to a crime can contaminate a sample. Recently, a Europe-wide investigation for a non-existent serial killer was spurred by mistakenly linking factory-contaminated DNA swabs. People have already spent years in prison as a result of deficient analyses. The risk of false positive results from "cold hits" will only increase as more people with no criminal records are added to DNA databases.
The final potential danger of extracting DNA evidence from the innocent lies in the persistent and increasing meme that society should use biotechnology to predict and interdict crime. The idea of socially coding for risk apparently appeals to some, but is scary in its deterministic denial of free will.
The dangers of abuse outweigh the public need to force persons not convicted of anything to surrender the most private and intimate information - not only about themselves, but about their families -- to the state. A government in a free society should not maintain a massive genetic database on its citizens.