March 1, 1999
DALLAS (CNN) -- A group of scientists, prosecutors and crime-fighters sitting on a special Justice Department commission began discussing Monday whether people who have been arrested -- but not convicted -- should be forced to turn over a sample of their DNA.
The 22-member panel was formed at the request of Attorney General Janet Reno after several state and municipal governments called for DNA to be collected, along with mug shots and fingerprints, from all suspects.
"The attorney general asked for this review to ensure that the privacy issues surrounding DNA sampling are fully vetted before widespread testing of arrestees is put in place," said John Bentivoglio, a Justice Department attorney advising Reno on the issue.
"The attorney general's request does not suggest an endorsement one way or the other," Bentivoglio said.
Many states now allow samples of DNA to be collected from those convicted of sex offenses and violent crimes. Those genetic fingerprints are stored in state databases so repeat offenders can be identified faster in other crimes.
The Justice Department study began after the city of New York and the state of North Carolina proposed universal DNA testing for all suspects. Louisiana recently passed a law allowing similar DNA sampling.
Supporters said expanding the DNA collections to all suspects will do more than catch serial criminals and repeat offenders.
"DNA has been very useful not only for convicting the guilty, but also for protecting the innocent," said James Crow, a University of Wisconsin geneticist who is vice chairman of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence.
There were more than 50 cases on record of individuals whose convictions for crimes including murder and rape were reversed based on DNA evidence, other commissioners said.
"The worry here is ... will the information that is collected here for one purpose be used for other purposes?" cautioned Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The government history on this subject is not an encouraging one."
The federal commission is expected to report back to the Justice Department by August 1, 1999.
"What we've begun to do is discuss the issue, the constitutional issues around that idea, again the privacy issue, which may not be unconstitutional but may pertain to our unique sense of privacy in the United States," explained Chris Asplen, the commission's executive director.
Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU, argued against widespread testing because it would mean "the most intimate secrets of our lives" would be placed in a central state data bank.
Another issue the commission will address is how to deal with a large backlog of DNA samples that have been collected but not analyzed.
The FBI currently has a national database of 138,000 DNA profiles of convicted violent offenders.
In addition, state authorities have collected 600,000 samples of convicted offenders, but according to the FBI, only 250,000 of those samples have been analyzed.
Law enforcement officials said that huge backlog means the widespread use of DNA sampling from suspects will not become practical on a national basis anytime soon.
Justice Department Correspondent Pierre Thomas and Reuters contributed to this report.
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