Collecting DNA for misdemeanors is unconstitutional

Victoria Zawitkowski
Staff Columnist

What little privacy our society has left is on the verge of disappearing. Expanding our DNA  database to include misdemeanor convictions is overly invasive of our rights as citizens. Some lawmakers suggest Virginia expand their database to include samples from class-1 misdemeanor convictions. This breaches our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy.

Law enforcement officials claim DNA databases are used solely to help convict the guilty and clear the innocent, which this practice often does. By taking samples from those convicted of misdemeanors, we create the potential for abuse of our private, genetic information.

illustration by Annette Allen

New York was the first state to collect DNA samples for all crimes, even misdemeanor convictions. In the wake of the Hannah Graham case there have been renewed efforts by lobbyists to expand Virginia’s law and DNA databanks. Jesse Matthew, the suspect in Graham’s murder as well as a rape in 2005, was convicted of trespassing four years ago. He was only fined $50 as a misdemeanor offense, but they argue that if Virginia followed New York’s example, Matthew’s DNA would have been entered into the database and connected with the 2005 rape in Fairfax County. This ultimately would have prevented him from committing any other violent acts against young women, like Hannah Graham. Regardless of that potentially positive outcome, collecting DNA for misdemeanors is unconstitutional. It violates our right to privacy, protected by the  fourth amendment, which eliminates the threat of unreasonable searches and seizures. It is certainly unreasonable to seize our most essential building blocks and private information, our DNA.

Currently, when someone is convicted of a misdemeanor, their fingerprint and mug shot are added to the system and nothing else. DNA samples hold much more personal information than a fingerprint or photograph. Our genetic material can show a predisposition for disease, markers for different types of disorders, racial ties, family roots and overall much more information than what is required for basic human identification. Putting one person’s DNA in the database also puts half of their family’s DNA on file as well.

When it comes to misdemeanors, fingerprints and an identification photo should be sufficient. The most heinous and violent of crimes, notably rape and murder, are usually committed by someone known to the victim. Although DNA can help the prosecution build a stronger case against the offender, processing DNA lengthens the investigation time by weeks or months. This gives the offender enough time to plan a solid defense, potentially enabling the court to dismiss the DNA evidence or enough time to evade justice by fleeing or hiding from the authorities. It is unfair to strip someone of their Fourth Amendment rights because of a misdemeanor conviction.

Expanding the DNA database is a gross misappropriation of resources. The money spent on maintaining the labs, hiring technicians and running the tests would be better spent on improving the justice system. Improvements could include increased police patrols or better training and resources for criminal investigations.

Many would argue that only the guilty have a reason to fear the collection of DNA. The argument that this information helps release those wrongfully convicted and put the guilty ones in jail is flimsy compared with the possible consequences of keeping such strict tabs on citizens.

The very idea of storing genetic information, however, implies a presumptive guilt for anyone who has been convicted of any crime during their lifetime. This especially rings true of the racial indicators from genetic material and the biases that we know exist in society today. When our government begins requiring methods to identify each citizen by the foundation of their cells, we should be scared. This is a violation of the foundation of our legal system: innocent until proven guilty.

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