Some question legality, effectiveness of Louisiana’s expansive DNA database
As The New Orleans Advocate reports, the expansion of Louisiana’s DNA database in recent years has become controversial. Since 2003, lawmakers have dramatically broadened the state’s program to collect DNA profiles during the booking of inmates.
The reasons for the database expansion can be linked to the capture of the infamous Derrick Todd Lee, who was arrested in 2003 after a string of killings in south Louisiana. During the months before his arrest, Louisiana launched an intense effort to identify who was killing women in the Baton Rouge area, which caused authorities to cast a wide DNA dragnet (The Advocate).
Louisiana now harvests DNA from people who are arrested but not convicted. Before Lee’s arrest, Louisiana retained 12,000 DNA profiles in its database. Now, it has nearly 500,000.
Many civil libertarians believe the program oversteps constitutional boundaries, citing the fact that Louisiana has a dramatically higher proportion of DNA profiles in its database for its population size than any other state (The Advocate). But law enforcement officials and legislators support the new method of DNA collection, claiming it is a powerful tool for detectives to link unknown suspects to unsolved crimes (The Advocate). Joanie Brocato, DNA manager for the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge, says, “The larger the database is, the more likely that the person will be in the database to generate the leads.”
One person on the other side of the argument is Professor Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the department of sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, who says that Louisiana probably has many arrestees that were innocent in the first place, and that law enforcement is “casting such a wide net that they’re getting people’s profiles that aren’t really involved in a crime” (The Advocate). Of the 500,000 DNA profiles taken, only 340,000 are from arrestees. In nearly every other state, the number of profiles from arrested people is a fraction of those from convicted offenders. According to the FBI, Louisiana has more arrestee profiles than any other state except California.
Elizabeth E. Joh, professor of law at the University of California Davis, asks the question: “Do we want the government to have all these genetic samples? There are other ways the government can use these databases” (The Advocate). Joh expresses concern that advancing DNA science yields increasingly personal information about people and their families, which is a huge privacy issue. Franz Borghardt, a Baton Rouge defense attorney, says that Louisiana’s DNA collections program is legal, but “smells of Big Brother.”
The discussion over Louisiana’s DNA database will continue, and for now it is polarized. While some consider the program a breach of privacy for Louisiana citizens, others believe that the privacy risks are worth the trade-off if it means putting more criminals behind bars.
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