A Philosopher's Blog

DNA & Violent Crimes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2008

Maryland is considering joining eleven other states in taking DNA samples from people arrested for violent crimes. Some states also take DNA samples, but only when a person is actually convicted of a crime.

The main argument in favor of taking DNA samples from anyone arrested for a violent crime is that it is supposed to provide greater protection from such crimes. The basic idea is that when a person is arrested for a violent crime, his/her DNA goes on file and then can be checked against DNA evidence from other crimes.

For example, suppose that Rick is arrested for rape and a sample of his DNA is taken. This DNA could then be matched up against DNA evidence from other crimes. Imagine that Rick had committed rapes in the past, but had not been arrested before. Assuming that DNA evidence had been collected in the past cases, Rick’s DNA could be matched to them, thus enabling Rick to be tried for those crimes as well. Or, suppose that Rick is not convicted of the rape, but later commits another rape. DNA evidence from that crime can be used to link Rick to the rape-something that would be harder to do without having his DNA on file. Thus, routine DNA sampling can help increase the chances that the guilty will be caught and punished for their crimes.

The collection of DNA can also be used to exonerate someone of a crime. Suppose that Rick is accused of rape and his DNA is sampled. The DNA evidence is already available for use in the case and is also on file should he be falsely accused in the future. DNA testing has sometimes served to prove people innocent and making this a routine part of criminal investigations can help protect the innocent from wrongful convictions.

Naturally, there are also arguments against taking DNA samples when people are arrested.

The usual practical argument is cost. The estimated cost in Maryland will be $1.7 million per year and some might argue that the money could be better spent elsewhere. Governor O’Malley takes the usual line and says “If we can save even one person from being murdered or raped, it’s hard to put a price on that,” he said.

While this sentiment is laudable, it is also unrealistic. In a practical sense, this approach is generally not followed. After all, government officials routinely allow people to suffer when the expenditure of money could prevent such suffering. A standard example is the case of health insurance.

Another problem with this approach is that it would seem to be morally questionable to expend $1.7 million to save one person from murder or rape if that same money could be used to save more people from death or suffering. On utilitarian grounds, we should use our resources to create the greatest good. It seems quite likely that there are many things that could be done with $1.7 million that would yield better results.

This approach might seem callous-someone might say, “what sort of monster would begrudge spending $1.7 million to save even a single person?” To which, I must reply-the sort of monster that almost all of us happen to be. Everyday we weigh the cost of things against the good they generate and we tolerate many things that seem monstrous. The simple fact of the matter is that we do not have the resources or the will to do every good thing, so we must spend our resources and our will for maximum effect.

Another concern with taking DNA samples is that it seems to violate the Fourth and Fifth Constitutional Amendments. These famous Amendments serve to protect people from unreasonable search and seizure as well as self incrimination (best known in terms of “pleading the Fifth”).

One easy reply to this concern is that it can be regarded as being on par with taking fingerprints-something routinely done when someone is arrested. By analogy, if fingerprinting is Constitutional, then so would the taking of DNA samples.  Of course, one important difference is that a DNA sample provides far more data than a fingerprint and more will be said about this later.

A third concern is that the DNA data will be kept on record even if the person is not convicted and this is regarded as problematic by those who favor civil liberties and privacy. It has been suggested that the DNA sample data should be removed from the database if a person is not convicted. However, this would serve to undercut some of the arguments for using this method. If the DNA data is purged, then it obviously cannot be used in later cases. If the DNA data is going to be purged if the person is found not guilty, then it might as well not be taken until a conviction is acquired. Otherwise, time and money would be wasted processing samples that could be purged later on.

A fourth concern is that DNA, unlike photos and fingerprints, contains a great deal of information about a person. This includes information about health and family.  As such, the taking of DNA samples can be regarded as a form of search and seizure rather than a method of identification. After all, if my finger prints are taken, the state just has my prints. If my DNA is sampled, they have a wealth of information about me. As such, taking DNA samples as a matter of routine could be seen as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Privacy advocates are also concerned that such data might be misused or exploited in various ways. For example, data on health could be used by insurance companies to deny people coverage. There are also various other ways that DNA data can be exploited and the future will no doubt reveal new methods of doing this.

Naturally, those who advocate this say the data will be adequately protected. Of course, when we routinely hear about medical records, financial records and such being lost or stolen, our confidence cannot be that great.

In sum, DNA sampling has good arguments in its favor and a strong case can be made for using it as a tool in the eternal war against crime. Of course, there are also strong arguments against using it. Perhaps one way to deal with the matter is to develop a way of clearly identifying people with DNA without also revealing what can be considered legitimate private data. I’m not an expert on genetics, so I am not sure if that would be possible. Perhaps the data needed to positively ID someone would by its very nature contain exactly the sort of data that most worries privacy advocates.

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