‘Dozens’ of police departments maintain private DNA databases

By Lisa Vaas, Sophos 

March 6, 2017

Last year, San Diego police stopped, searched, handcuffed and detained one of a group of kids walking through a park. They found an unloaded handgun in his duffel bag.

A court later threw out evidence related to the gun, saying the search had violated the teenager’s Fourth Amendment rights. However, the court failed to order the destruction of a DNA sample the police had collected by swabbing the 16-year-old’s mouth without parental consent.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced last month that it’s suing the city over what it says is the police department’s unlawful policy allowing them to collect DNA samples from minors without first getting parental consent.

But the case has brought up issues that go well beyond San Diego. In fact, as the Associated Press has reported, dozens of police departments around the country are amassing their own, private DNA databases to track not only criminals, but people who haven’t been charged with crimes.

They say doing so helps them avoid backlogs that can cause 18- to 24-month delays in processing DNA samples. But legal experts say that keeping their own, private genetic databases also helps police departments to evade state and federal regulations about who they can get genetic samples from and how long the samples can be retained.

The AP quoted Jason Kreig, a law professor at the University of Arizona:

The local databases have very, very little regulations and very few limits, and the law just hasn’t caught up to them. Everything with the local DNA databases is skirting the spirit of the regulations.

San Diego is one example of the laxer rules found at the local level: according to the city’s police department procedures for DNA collection, a supervisor or a field lieutenant has to sign off on a mouth swab taken from a minor.

Plus, the officer is required to fill out a “Consent to Collect Saliva” form and to then get the minor to sign it – the same procedure used to get genetic samples from an adult. Parental notification is only required after the fact.

That differs from California law, which restricts compulsory collection of DNA from juveniles for inclusion in the state database, unless a juvenile’s been judged guilty of a felony. The ACLU’s lawsuit (PDF) says San Diego has “sidestepped” stricter state law by maintaining its local database separate from the state data bank.

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