Monday, October 5, 1998

Week of 10/05/1998

Just A Sample..
Do you think DNA dragnets aren’t intrusive? Wait until it snags YOU!
- by David Matthews 2

Picture this: You’re sitting at home with your family, dinner’s almost ready, and there’s a knock at the door. You open the door to see two officers standing there, badges visible, squad car in the driveway.

"Good evening Mister Smith.. I’m Sergeant Joe Thursday, this is my partner, Officer Miranda Voided. Sir, we’d like to ask you to come down to the station with us to provide a DNA sample."

You wonder what’s going on. Are you a suspect in any crimes? Do you need to call an attorney?

"No sir, we don’t suspect you of any crimes, this is simply a precaution. You see, we’re investigating a number of crimes in the area, and we’d like to weed out any potential suspects by having people provide us with a sample of their DNA. It’s a fairly easy procedure. We’ll just take your picture, take some fingerprints, and then take a swap to the inside of your mouth for some skin samples. We can have you back home in an hour."

You tell them you’re uncomfortable being taken down to the police station like an ordinary criminal.

"Well Mister Smith, I can understand you feeling uncomfortable with all this. This is, after all, a new procedure for us, but it’s being used in Europe to crack down on their killers and rapists. I would think that an upstanding citizen like you wouldn’t hesitate to clear any possible connections to crimes and …. No, Mister Smith, I told you that we don’t consider you to be a suspect in any wrongdoing. But we want to eliminate you from any possible crimes, and we can’t do that if we don’t have a sample of your DNA to do it. You don’t want to be wrongly accused of a crime, do you?"

So you ask them what they’ll do with this DNA sample once they get it from you.

"What do we do with this data? Well, I really don’t know what happens to it. I assume they keep it on file for reference, but we really haven’t set any policy for how to handle it.

"Now, Mister Smith, we can’t force you to take part in this. This is completely up to you. But I want you to think about how suspicious it looks to have you refuse to take part in this. It may make us think you have something to hide. You wouldn’t want us to think that way, do you?"

Fantasy, you ask?

Try this is becoming REALITY!

You know, Americans tend to pride ourselves on the freedoms we claim to have. We like to think we’re NOT in some totalitarian regime or in a theocracy run by rabid religious extremists. And yet, one has to think about this kind of stuff and wonder how far America really is from being something straight out of George Orwell’s 1984!

Now, I have no problem with the advancement in technology that makes DNA testing more and more faster, easier, and affordable for police and prosecutors. In legitimate criminal court cases, DNA can make or break a case. DNA testing has freed many a wrongfully convicted person when all else has failed, and has served to cement a case when all other forms of evidence can be refuted.

Yet now that same speed in testing is being used as the excuse to collect as many DNA samples as possible of the general populace. A form of DNA "dragnet" is being used to collect samples from certain groups as a way to "narrow" a search. Police in some towns are using this in isolated cases, but others are wondering if this could be used on a regular basis, much like their counterparts in England have.

Their rationality is simple - people give up a little DNA sample from inside their mouth, it gets matched against DNA samples taken from crimes. Those samples match, they’ve got their criminal. They don’t match, you’re still free. No muss, no fuss, no attorneys, no warrants, no courts. Simple.

Too simple.

Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t match with how it has been used. In all the instances where genetic dragnets have been employed, there have been no instances where the genetic samples resulted in arrests! The only breaks in cases where such a procedure was used came from the dragnets themselves, not what was collected.

In other words, the only successful use of the genetic dragnets has been as a bullying tactic, exposing possible suspects by finding some way out of the tests. Still, the concept of collecting such information is seductive to law enforcement here in America.

Of course, the supporters of such a measure say there’s nothing wrong with genetic dragnets, that it’d be just another consequence of us living in a so-called "civilized" society. After all, look at the number of states where you’re asked to give up your fingerprints as part of your drivers license. How about those states where you have to give a breathalyzer test if the police suspect you of driving drunk? If you refuse, they take your license away on the spot. And how about the number of companies that require you to take a drug test as part of your employment? Certainly a violation of a person’s personal rights, yet it’s done nonetheless.

Let’s be brutally honest here, folks. There’s a difference between having to pee in a bottle for a job and having the police escort you to the station to give up a genetic sample. You don’t HAVE to work at that job, and if you refuse to take the test and don’t take the job, that’s all. But if you refuse to allow the police to take a genetic sample from you, you’re considered a suspect in a crime. That means they get to poke around in your life, follow you around, and try to find just WHAT IT IS you’re so guilty about!

Here’s a dirty little secret, folks: in the war on crime, the police do not recognize conscientious objectors. It’s often a zero-sum game, and you’re either with them or against them.

Now for those of you who think such a dragnet would be a great idea, I want you to go back to that scene at the top of this article. I want you to imagine how you would explain to your family and your neighbors that you had to go to the police station like a criminal, get fingerprinted and photographed like a criminal, and then had a genetic sample taken from your body like a criminal. Then explain to them that you didn’t do anything, and that you were just cooperating with the police. Oh, sure, they’ll believe you. Maybe. Or how about being rousted in the middle of your sleep? Or summoned from your job? You want to explain that situation to your boss?

Then there’s the fact that, like any other kind of police power, it can be abused. People in the Boston area may remember an incident about fifteen years ago where a successful white attorney called the police on his car phone to report that he and his wife were shot by a black man. Every single black male matching the brief description of the lawyer were rousted from their homes, taken to the local Boston PD district, fingerprinted, photographed, and put on a lineup for the attorney to identify. Every single civil rights group in the area was screaming about Gestapo tactics, which failed to bring forth a single suspect. It later turned out that the attorney had shot his pregnant wife and himself and blamed it all on a fictitious attacker for the sole purpose of collecting on the insurance. Unfortunately the attorney committed suicide before the truth came out. Now tell me, do you want that kind of situation happening in New York? Or Los Angeles? Or Atlanta? Or Birmingham?

Supporters claim that the whole procedure would be "voluntary," but that is a myth. There is no such thing as "voluntary" when it comes to government. Even George Washington has said that "government is not eloquence, it is not reason, it is force."

What about what happens to the samples once they are collected and a person is cleared of the current crime? Knowing the federal government and its obsession with information, there is no doubt that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would set up some kind of genetic database like they do fingerprints. Your genetic sample, encoded, in some database for anyone in the government to gain access to for any reason whatsoever. Yeah, that’s a reassuring thought.

Listen folks, there’s a reason why government has been limited to the kinds of intrusive searches other countries have allowed. Our country was formed on the basis that the individual should be free from government intrusion into their personal lives. It has also established a system of justice where someone is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Those two concepts may not always be in fashion, but they have stood as safeguards against an over-intrusive government. That’s something our well-intentioned advocates of genetic dragnets can never guarantee, not matter how much they sugar-coat their goals.

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