26 March 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 650
Officials in New York State in the USA have passed a bill requiring people convicted of almost any crime to provide a sample for the state's DNA database. While generally lauded, the move has attracted criticism from civil rights groups who claim that constitutional privacy issues are raised by the government holding so many people's genetic information on file.
Since its introduction in 1996, the DNA database has been employed in 2,900 convictions and has helped to exonerate 27 wrongfully convicted New Yorkers. When it was introduced it applied only to those convicted of a small number of crimes. The data collection has been expanded three times since then, most recently in 2006.
Currently, DNA samples can be collected from people convicted of fewer than half of the crimes named in state law, including all felonies and some misdemeanours. The new bill, which comes into effect on 12 October 2012, has been dubbed the 'all crimes' law, since the ruling will apply to nearly all convicted criminals, including those guilty of fare-jumping and shoplifting.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement: 'I am proud to sign this bill today because this modern law enforcement tool will not only help us solve and prevent crimes but also exonerate the innocent. The bottom line is that this is a tool that works, and will make the state safer for all New Yorkers'.
'This legislation is a major step forward in eliminating wrongful convictions in New York', said Jonathan Lippman, New York's chief judge. 'The legislation takes an even-handed, balanced approach to this problem, particularly by expanding the access of convicted offenders - not only those convicted after trial, but also those who pleaded guilty - to DNA testing'.
The law has been heavily criticized by civil rights groups. In a statement, New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) legislative director, Robert Perry, said the measure will do little to enhance public safety while increasing the chance of wrongful convictions and flawed prosecutions. He added: 'Rather than improving crime-fighting, this expansion simply creates a permanent class of usual suspects whose DNA will be tested by police for the rest of their lives'.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, added, 'While we appreciate the exception for marijuana possession, the fact is that the same exception should apply to all nonviolent, low level offenses. It just underscores the extent to which this deal is based more on politics than a commitment to justice'.