A Rising Trend for Criminalistics
Crime, a timeless constant in every society throughout recorded history, ranges from petty thievery to murder. The crime trend stands as a constant power struggle between offenders and the forces responsible for their control and capture. In recent years, criminalistics experts have developed a threshold of new techniques to combat crime across the board with DNA evidence becoming a leading method in crime scene analysis; however, DNA databases, criminal records designed to document the DNA profile of arrested, detained, and convicted persons with suspected involvement in crimes, have come under fire with questions of possible misuse, overall ethicality, and limitations for the use of DNA databases (Moore). In addition to the aforementioned concerns also stems possibilities for future developments and uses for DNA profiling.
First and foremost one must become familiar with the systems in place, primarily the Combined DNA Identification System (C.O.D.I.S.) and the National DNA Index System (N.D.I.S.) (United States). The C.O.D.I.S. is the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation’s leading program of support in regards to DNA databases; it is designed to support the various networks involved in creation of extensive networks of DNA databases. N.D.I.S. is the national level of the C.O.D.I.S. system which acts as a conduit for information drawn directly from federal, state, and local crime labs (United States). Both systems only use a limited number of possible gene loci and alleles in their diagnostic examination of genetic information to ensure enough information to identify an individual is provided but not enough to reveal other genetic based information (United States).
While on the subject of the C.O.D.I.S. system I must include an explanation of current DNA collection policies and as to how DNA samples are collected. DNA samples are acquired from suspects via a gentle swabbing of the inside of the individual’s mouth; most states and countries that make use of DNA databases require samples be collected from those convicted of a crime, though it is not uncommon for mere suspicion to warrant at least temporary entry into a database (Guillén et al.). Current policy does allow one to request their DNA be expunged from the system in the case that innocence was proven or situations where a long enough grace period has passed since the last recorded violation has been recorded. DNA collected from previously convicted criminals and suspected criminals are then processed through C.O.D.I.S. where it is then compared to DNA samples found on crime scenes; if the loci match than the person is sent in for further questioning; if innocent the suspect is still monitored until the case is solved but the process does help clear them from immediate suspicion.
One of the most controversial issues surrounding the use of DNA databases comes from skeptics concerned with the protection of the rights of the innocent; in reality the use of DNA databases could not be more reassuring to such skeptics as DNA profiling can only help protect innocent people from wrongful conviction for crimes they may not have committed. Solomon Moore, writer for the New York Times, states in “F.B.I. and States Vastly Expand DNA Databases,” that “Law enforcement officials say that expanding the DNA databanks to include legally innocent people will help solve more violent crimes” (Moore). With the exception of identical siblings, no two people will share an exact DNA pattern, which makes DNA profiling extremely useful for pinpointing suspects whose DNA was left on a crime scene. Candice Roman-Santos wrote in her article “Concerns Associated with Expanding DNA Databases,” that “An individual’s DNA can be decoded to reveal a pattern that is shared only by a genetically identical twin. In addition, DNA does not change over time, except in the case of mutations” (Roman-Santos 267). Such precision can only benefit those truly innocent of crimes as a quick DNA test will prove their innocence; an added benefit comes in the form of immediate deterrent of crime due to the increase in the risks associated with career criminals.
In addition to surface level concerns involving the use of DNA, an argument as to the legality of such databases maintaining DNA samples from persons deemed innocent or dismissed of all charges has become a hot topic. As mentioned most states and countries that make use of DNA databases require DNA samples to be taken from anyone convicted of a crime, and a few even require DNA samples be gathered from those suspected of having already committed a crime (Guillén et al.). Through DNA collection targets mainly those who have or have a high likelihood to commit crimes, far from the argued innocent (Moore). Use of DNA storage for any purpose other than criminalistics is a farfetched concept in that the use of an individual’s DNA for illicit purposes is virtually impossible (Roman-Santos 268). Current limitations on the use of DNA screening centers almost entirely around criminalistics; for example, if the DNA a person convicted of a minor crime, such as public intoxication, were to be entered into a DNA database and then, at some point in the future, the same individual commits a more heinous crime, such as murder, and leaves trace of their DNA at the scene of the crime than the person in question would be immediately pinpointed once the DNA found on the crime scene was sent through analysis with C.O.D.I.S. (Moore). Furthermore, if every citizen were required to submit a DNA sample along with fingerprints at some point in their lives than one could expect an exponential rise in the performance of police in regards to investigations and a radically lower crime rate; if a DNA sample found at a crime scene can be processed through a database consisting of most the population than an exact match would reveal potential perpetrators of the crime, effectively eliminating a great deal of guess work involved in policing (Guillén et al.).
Ethically DNA database usage could borderline invasion of privacy; examples of governments that tried to enforce such strict censuses on their citizens plague history and besmirch the concept of a DNA database at its core. Experts in the field of law argue over the use of genetic information as a means of surveillance with claims that DNA databases violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure of property, including ones DNA; however, DNA profiling can be ruled as constitutional since DNA profiling falls into the same legal category as fingerprinting, albeit in a sense more akin to a “genetic license plate number” (Williams and Johnson). By comparison DNA databases are the modern day equivalents to fingerprinting with one key difference, individuals can change their fingerprints, but they cannot change their DNA sequence. Michael Seringhaus quoted in their article “The Evolution of DNA Databases: Expansion, Familial Search, and the Need for Reform,” that “Taking traditional fingerprints is similar to DNA sampling in that both seek to establish identity by impartial means (one phenotypic, the other genotypic); both are minimally invasive, and both are routinely used by law enforcement to aid in identification” (Seringhaus). While the truth of the matter is anything could potentially be used for wrong, the DNA databases C.O.D.I.S. processes would provide much more righteous benefits than any possible wrongdoings. In fact, if a state or country were to require all citizens to submit their DNA through qualified facilities than the entirety of security, confidentiality, and overall efficiency would fall on the government itself (Guillén et al.).
Currently the main opposition for the use of mandatory DNA profiling is challenged under the philosophy that people are innocent until proven guilty, and retention of DNA in a database automatically marks individuals as suspects (Simoncelli); with this in mind I refer back to an earlier point, if one has nothing to fear and are truly innocent than they have nothing to fear from the screening performed through C.O.D.I.S. Contrarily, the use of C.O.D.I.S does potentially provide access to a person’s most personal genetic information. With over 4,000 known hereditary diseases currently documented a full DNA background would be a massive invasion of privacy; however, only certain genetic markers or loci, whose alleles do not indicate diseases, are used for criminalistics purposes, to conceal the medical history of the individual (Guillén et al.). In addition to protection of privacy once ones DNA is entered into a database comes the slight breach of privacy during the initial DNA collection; proper personnel training, mandatory inclusion of all individuals, and a code of confidentiality would remedy the situation (Williams and Johnson).
Another issue that emerges amidst the debate is the cost to maintain and expand C.O.D.I.S. with the inclusion of DNA databases that consist of millions of DNA samples; the system would pay for itself by cutting time spent identifying suspects thus reducing costs for both the investigative agencies involved in crime scene analysis and the court system responsible for the proceeding trials. In addition to use in criminalistics the C.O.D.I.S. system could be integrated into the medical field; with the use of a wider range of loci to pinpoint and treat possible disorders while subject to the doctor-patient confidentiality agreement. Furthermore, an enhanced C.O.D.I.S. system could eliminate the growing trend of identity fraud by a required DNA verification that an individual is who they claim to be; technological advancements previously thought possible only in works of science fiction are on the horizon.
In conclusion, the advancements of DNA profiling through use of C.O.D.I.S. and N.D.I.S. have made possible many advancements in the criminology and medical fields; however, with advancing technology comes a need to redefine policies to both protect the rights of citizens and to allow such advancements to take place. Current policies have not directly been violated by the use of DNA database but caution must be taken to ensure the status quo remains citizen friendly in the future. Fear of what could be should not inhibit progression; the medical and law enforcement benefits from enhancing the C.O.D.I.S. system are worth the litigation required to restrict the system but not prohibit its use entirely. We are on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could very well change society as we know it, let us look to the future with an open mind and a touch of caution.
Guillén, Margarita, et al. “Ethical-legal Problems of DNA Databases in Criminal Investigation.” Journal of Medical Ethics 26.4. Journal of Medical Ethics. Academic Search Premier. Web. 06 Mar. 2013
Moore, Solomon. “F.B.I. and States Vastly Expanding Databases of DNA.”The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Apr. 2009. Academic Search Premier. Web. 06 Mar. 2013.
Roman-Santos, Candice. “Concerns Associated with Expanding DNA Databases.” Hastings Science & Technology Law Journal (2010): 267. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Seringhaus, Michael. “The Evolution of DNA Databases: Expansion, Familial Search, and the Need for Reform.” The Information Society, 6 Oct. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Simoncelli, Tania. “Dangerous Excursions: The Case Against Expanding Forensic DNA Databases To Innocent Persons.” Journal Of Law, Medicine & Ethics 34.2 (2006): 390-397. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.
United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) Web. 16 Apr. 2013
Williams, Robin, and Paul Johnson. “‘Wonderment And Dread’: Representations Of DNA In Ethical Disputes About Forensic DNA Databases.” New Genetics & Society 23.2 (2004): 205-223. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.