In the past several months, several cases have highlighted the effectiveness of DNA in holding people accountable for their crimes.
In Anaheim, a homeowner gets into an altercation with a burglary suspect. DNA is collected from the homeowner and a year later a suspect is arrested when his DNA, collected after his arrest for an unrelated crime, links him to the burglary.
In San Francisco and Nevada, the “Gypsy Hill” serial killer finally is identified after DNA was collected during a prison transfer from one state to another. The DNA positively identified Rodney Halbower as the suspect in the killings. He was serving time for a 1975 rape when he provided a DNA sample prior to being transferred to Oregon to serve time on another case.
The collection of Halbower’s DNA also cleared Cathy Woods, a mentally ill woman who confessed to a 1976 murder and served 30 years for the offense. This brings up another separate issue: Law enforcement cannot legally obtain DNA from people already in prison for previous offenses unless they get a warrant or consent.
Pretty much if you have been in prison prior to 2004 your DNA is not in any database. This is something that should make everyone wonder: How many cases could be cleared if convicted criminals serving serious time had their DNA on file?
The United States Supreme Court already has ruled on the right of police departments to collect DNA from anyone arrested for a crime.
“When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
The Supreme Court ruling was the result of a case in which a suspect arrested for a minor assault was positively connected to a rape after his DNA was entered into a database. Absent the DNA collection, he would have gotten away with it.
There is now a case before the California Supreme Court to address the issue of DNA collection. The ACLU is arguing that DNA should only be collected from those convicted of a crime. Currently, just like fingerprints, many jails are collecting DNA from arrestees at the time of booking.
The ACLU is arguing that the taking of DNA is too big an intrusion into a person’s individual liberty and an unreasonable search and seizure.
The process for obtaining DNA is simple. No bloodletting. No ink on your hands. Just a cotton swab on the inside of your cheek. DNA then is processed and matched against a database of DNA collected at crime scenes across the state. A separate database exists for violent crimes at the national level.
DNA has been a huge leap forward for law enforcement investigations. It provides for the identification of criminals in ways that no other technology, including fingerprints, can.
There is nothing sinister or overreaching in collecting DNA from persons taken into custody. It’s just another technological advance that allows agencies to catch bad guys who up to this point have gotten away with their crimes.
I’m sure there are murderers, rapists and other bad guys who are hoping the California Supreme Court agrees with the ACLU.
Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org