Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants an “all crimes” DNA database for New York. That would authorize the police to take a DNA sample from every person convicted of any crime in our state, no matter how small.
The governor should rethink this radical proposal. Evidence shows that when it comes to DNA databases, bigger just isn’t better.
New Yorkers should know that a similar expansion already failed in the United Kingdom.
Why? Because the public discovered that people were being added to the database for absurdly minor crimes, such as hitting someone with a snowball or stealing a pack of Pokemon cards.
In one instance, an elderly grandmother who failed to return a soccer ball kicked into her garden had her DNA taken by police. Ordinary citizens found themselves with permanent records on police databases.
And these risks are not offset by increased benefits. As the UK database ballooned in size there was no statistical increase in the number of crimes detected using DNA, because most people are unlikely to commit serious crimes for which DNA evidence might be relevant.
The creators of New York’s database recognized this point when they noted in a 1992 report that it would be limited to “murderers and sexual offenders because DNA evidence is more likely to be uncovered in homicides and sexual attacks than in other crimes.”
Indeed, larger databases actually increase the statistical probability for false matches and error, which can occur by chance or through poor laboratory practice and cause terrible miscarriages of justice.
Across the country, forensic DNA labs have had problems with cross-contamination of samples, mislabeling, misinterpretation of samples and in some cases outright fraud.
For instance, an analyst for the New York City medical officer’s office was caught faking the results of control samples. The consequences can be severe.
Consider the case of Steven Myer, an Ohio man who was indicted for burglary based solely on DNA evidence. He spent seven months in jail before being released after subsequent retesting proved it was not his DNA sample.
DNA databases raise special problems for racial minorities, due in part to racially biased police practices. African-Americans, for example, are far more likely to end up in DNA databases than whites. They make up an estimated 40 percent of the federal database while constituting only 13 percent of the population. These individuals are then subject to a higher chance that a false match may implicate them in crimes they did not commit.
An “all crimes” database also raises important civil rights and privacy concerns because DNA is far different from other methods of identification such as fingerprints. It is a window into an individual’s medical history as well as that of his or her entire family.
The negligible law enforcement benefit, coupled with risks of false incrimination, require that the governor give much more thought to the risks of his proposal.
At the very least, a change in current policy must be preceded by significant independent study.
Law enforcement agencies in our state are already burdened with limited resources and straining under a backlog created by current database practices. Evidence must be presented to show the actual benefits of expansion as well as the unintended negative effects it might have on law enforcement capacity to investigate and prosecute crimes, including what additional resources would be required. Furthermore, any change in policy must be coupled with vigorous and continuous oversight of forensic laboratories and police practices.
Before moving ahead with this proposal, Cuomo must be able to assure New Yorkers that this enormous expansion of government authority won’t threaten people’s rights and create more problems than it solves.
As it stands, he simply cannot make those assurances.
Jeremy Gruber is president of the Council for Responsible Genetics.