Reno Wants DNA Taken
From Anyone Arrested
By Richard Willing
General Janet Reno has asked a federal commission to study the legality of taking DNA samples from everyone arrested instead of just the convicted sex offenders and violent felons currently permitted by law.
Such widespread testing would hugely expand government's reach by placing the genetic fingerprints of millions of Americans into state crime databases even if they never were convicted of a crime.
The study is to be announced in Dallas Monday at a meeting of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. The commission, a panel of judges, defense lawyers, police, prosecutors and scientists, will conduct the study.
Driving Reno's request: a new law in Louisiana and proposals in North Carolina and New York City to permit widespread testing.
"This doesn't imply an endorsement one way or another," said John Bentivoglio, a Justice Department attorney who is Reno's chief privacy adviser. "It does reflect (Reno's) deep interest and commitment in using our law enforcement tools in a manner that is sensitive to privacy rights."
New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who has proposed DNA testing for everyone arrested in his jurisdiction, backs the study. "This is not an invasive process, and if it's used properly it's going to protect society," he said.
Taking DNA from convicts has been upheld by courts for the same reason as fingerprints. Both amount to warrantless searches, courts have said, but are justified by government's need to solve crime.
Expanding DNA testing to everyone arrested is opposed by privacy advocates who fear that information from innocent people will be misused.
"Why target everybody with a broad brush when many (arrested) people are never convicted of anything?" asked Harlan Levy, a New York City defense lawyer and author of a book on DNA.
A second concern is that DNA taken in criminal investigations will be used later to extract genetic information about predisposition to disease and other hereditary factors.
Reno has asked the commission to study that issue.
The commission is scheduled to get recommendations to Reno by Aug. 1. She can use them to craft legislation and to set policy for using DNA in federal law enforcement.
The FBI estimates 15.3 million Americans were arrested in 1997. All states now have laws permitting them to take DNA from convicted rapists and other felons such as murderers and child molesters.
A national database now has 38,000 criminal DNA profiles. Another 450,000 have been collected but not analyzed.