ACLU goes after DNA collection law

October 7, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Is it a public safety tool or an invasion of privacy? The state's method of collecting DNA samples is under scrutiny. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a voter-approved measure that allows law enforcement to collect DNA samples after an arrest and before any conviction.

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The whole idea of the DNA database is to help solve crimes, but the ACLU says to collect one's genetic code from people who haven't yet been convicted, is simply a violation of one's constitutional rights.

It was during the Iraq War protests in San Francisco seven months ago when officers arrested Lily Haskell of Oakland for trying to get a friend out of police custody. Because it was a felony, she was required to give a saliva sample when she arrived at the jail. The whole idea of it scared her.

"Who knows what they're going to do with my DNA. Just like anyone else who has their DNA in the databank. It's not a fool-proof system," said Haskell.

Requiring DNA samples from detainees is the result of Proposition 69. California voters approved the initiative five years ago, but this is the first year police started gathering DNA from people other than convicted felons. The ACLU is now challenging the law.

"The question here is whether we want our most personal information to be in an enormous criminal database simply because we were arrested by a single police officer," said Michael Risher with the ACLU.

Unlike a fingerprint, which simply reveals a person's identity, a DNA sample indicates a person's family ties, some health risks and according to some, can predict a propensity for violence.

The state attorney general's office, which is one of the defendants in the lawsuit, declined an on-camera interview, but its spokesman wrote, "The [California] Department of Justice administers the state DNA data bank program, which has proven to be an effective law enforcement technology that has enhanced public safety and meets applicable constitutional standards."

ABC7 legal analyst Dean Johnson thinks otherwise. He believes the ACLU has a strong case.

"This statute can reach people who are wrongfully arrested, unlawfully arrested, it can even require the victims of crimes to produce buccal swabs and blood samples and that's an extraordinary invasion of privacy," said Johnson.

This lawsuit has been filed in U.S. district court in San Francisco. In a few weeks, the ACLU will seek an injunction blocking DNA collection unless a person is convicted or a search warrant is obtained.

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