Police departments around the country are collecting DNA in largely unregulated databases, The New York Times reported today, providing a broader look at a practice The Baltimore Sun revealed in Maryland earlier this year.
The largest collections of DNA records are held at the state and federal levels, but local agencies are also free to collect their own samples and keep their own records, which are not always subject to the same rules.
New York City, for example, has a database of 11,000 suspects and Orange County, Calif., has 90,000 records on file, according to the Times. Baltimore police had samples from more than 2,000 suspects and more than 3,000 homicide victims, The Sun reported in February.
The state's DNA law, which allows the collection of DNA from people arrested in connection with serious crimes and was recently upheld by the Supreme Court, makes no reference to the local databases. Some legislators and lawyers in the public defender's office say that means police could get around privacy and expungement provisions included in the statute.
After the Sun's report, the Legislative Black Caucus, led by Baltimore Democract Del. Jill P. Carter, pushed to tweak the wording of the DNA law so that those protections would apply to all databases. The bid failed.
The Times found a similar situation in many other states, with laws silent on how to treat local databases.
And Barry Scheck, a co-director of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate people wrongly convicted of crimes, told the paper he has been warning police that they might face a public backlash against what he called "rogue, unregulated" databases.
“Law enforcement has just gone ahead and started collecting DNA samples from suspects in an unregulated fashion,” he told the Times.
Police officers interviewed for the story countered that having a local database gives them more flexibility and can help keep tabs on low-level repeat offenders. And Maryland law enforcement officials have told the Sun earlier this year that they believe the databases are useful crime-solving tools and that they comply with state laws.