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DNA databank dispute

CHARLES RAINES' beef with the state of Maryland isn't over his conviction for armed robbery. Or the terms of his sentence. Or the prison food. It's about the saliva-soaked swab he was forced to give to prison officials when he entered the system. The cotton swab held traces of Mr. Raines' DNA, his genetic fingerprint that is stored with 29,000 profiles in a state police databank. The 40-year-old felon says the forced taking of his DNA violated his privacy. But when Mr. Raines broke the law, he gave up some of that privacy.

The Maryland Court of Appeals has been asked to decide if Mr. Raines has a legitimate beef: Does the state's collection of DNA from prisoners violate their Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure? At stake is the viability of the state DNA databank and the samples that have been used to solve crimes and crack unsolved cases. In Mr. Raines' case, evidence from a 1996 rape from Montgomery County matched his databanked DNA profile. He has since been charged with the crime.

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Like a fingerprint, a person's DNA is unique. It can identify a suspect in a way no eyewitness can - with near 100 percent certainty. It can help convict a person or prove innocence.

Law enforcement's use of the state DNA databank has aided in 156 criminal investigations, the majority of which were unsolved "cold cases." A decade ago, the technology cleared death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth of the 1984 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. Last year, the state DNA databank identified a convicted sex offender as the child's killer. Those successes in the fight against crime are occurring across the country - every state has databanked prisoner DNA.

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The characterization of a DNA profile as a genetic fingerprint makes sense. When someone is arrested for a crime, he or she is fingerprinted. Law enforcement can compare those prints with evidence from other crime scenes: the fingerprint left on a window ledge after a burglary, a murder weapon, a bag of explosives. A DNA profile offers another exact way to identify a suspect from evidence: a cigarette butt, semen-stained lingerie, a bloody handprint.

The crime-solving aspect of the databanks has proved beneficial to police, crime victims and defendants who have been wrongly convicted. Those benefits surely outweigh the physical intrusion of swabbing an inmate's cheek. But concerns about privacy cannot be overlooked. The prisoner DNA profiles should be used exclusively for law enforcement purposes - not to test paternity, research the roots of criminal behavior or determine a propensity for disease. Maryland law provides that protection by restricting its use and criminalizing the misuse of DNA profiles, which are identified by numbers, not names.

As a convicted felon, Charles Raines lost the right to vote and serve on a jury. He shouldn't expect to retain sole control over his DNA fingerprint.


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