Thursday, October 15, 2009

The fear of DNA by 'privacy advocates' is total nonsense

There was a fascinating story in today's San Francisco Chronicle about the use of DNA technology to solve a crime which took place 11 months ago in Berkeley, where a brutally violent man (involuntarily) left DNA behind at the scene of one of his attacks, an attempted carjacking, and his genetic markers were matched with his DNA sample in a database. When the two were put together, police knew he was the beast they had been looking for:
Paul Anthony McGruder, 52, was arrested at his home on the 5900 block of Camden Street in East Oakland. Police say McGruder pulled a gun on a woman in the parking lot of Whole Foods Market at 3000 Telegraph Ave. on Dec. 30 and ordered her into her car. Once she was inside, the woman screamed and the carjacker punched her in the face, said Officer Andrew Frankel, a police spokesman. The woman stabbed him in the neck with a pair of scissors, police said.

After she fended him off a la Johnny Depp, McGruder immediately went after more victims:
The man ran off and tried to carjack another woman, but failed in that attempt as well, Frankel said. Finally, he stole a man's 2008 Subaru and escaped, police said. McGruder is being held on suspicion of three counts of carjacking or attempted carjacking and one count of kidnapping during the commission of a carjacking.

If it were up to the ACLU, evildoers like Paul Anthony McGruder would be free to terrorize other innocents. This AOL story reports that the ACLU has filed suit to restrict the collection of DNA in California to only those serving time for very serious crimes.
Thanks to the passage of Proposition 69 in 2004, California now mandates the collection of DNA from anyone arrested in connection with a felony -- regardless of whether that person is later charged with a crime.

"I'm not sure the voters understood that they were empowering the police to take DNA from innocent people," said Peter Meier, an attorney at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, a San Francisco law firm that has partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the state.

Meier wants the court to restrict California's DNA collection mandate so that it only applies to convicted felons. He cites the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

If serious crimes were only committed by people who have already been convicted of serious crimes, I wouldn't have a problem with the ACLU's position. However, the truth is that most murderers and rapists and carjackers, like Paul Anthony McGruder, have a long history of minor brushes with the law before they spend time in prison. Collecting their DNA when they are still low-level criminals will allow law enforcement to solve the crimes they commit down the road, protecting society from these predators. If they never graduate to rape and mayhem, they have nothing to worry about knowing their DNA is in a computer database.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported a story about a program in Orange County in which arrestees for minor crimes were being given the choice of having the charges dropped in exchange for submitting a DNA sample. The motivation of the DA's office in Orange County is twofold: first, to save money by not having to prosecute minor offense. That saves on lawyer time, court costs and keeps the jail free for serious offenders; and second, the DA wants to expand his DNA database -- in order to increase the chances law enforcement in Orange County will find a match when the crime being investigated is more serious:
"There'd be no necessity for a guilty plea, and a dismissal, or anything like that," Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said. "It's advantageous to the defense, and it's advantageous to us, because we're able to handle more cases with fewer resources." The DNA sample could act as a deterrent for potential criminals and be a useful investigative tool for law enforcement, Rackauckas told supervisors. The plan applies to people arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors, including petty theft, trespassing and low-level drug-possession felonies.

The story indicates that some cops don't like the idea of dropping charges on people they've arrested. Civil liberties advocates also object to this program, because it "would allow prosecutors to wrongly pressure people who have not been convicted of any crime to give the government a DNA sample."

I don't get that objection at all. What pressure? I don't see how the police having access to a sample of DNA or the DNA violates anybody's rights. DNA amounts to a series of letters and numbers. It's not like the cops are coming to my house and forcing me (or anyone else) to give them a sample of my blood.

Does the ACLU think someone is going to plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit because he figures, "Well, them cops got my DNA. Might as well just go to prison for the next 15 years rather than defend myself"?

If it didn't cost money to collect and store DNA from every American and it weren't a hassle to do so -- it would be a waste of resources, for example, if everyone had to go down to a police station and submit blood or saliva for no reason other than to universalize the database -- I would have no objection to a more comprehensive database.

But the truth is, of course, that it does cost money and would be a hassle*. Because of that, and because 97 percent of people never will commit or be accused of committing any serious crimes -- the bad 3 percent commits all of the serious offenses -- a universal plan is not worth pursuing.

If the DNA database at least has samples from everyone arrested for crimes, most serious criminals will eventually make it into the DNA database, and that makes it safer for the rest of us and safer for any innocents who are wrongly accused of crimes in which DNA can prove their innocence.


*The reason I object to our policy of non-discrimination at airport security checks is because they create a big hassle for people who not only are perfectly innocent, but who completely don't fit the profile of the terrorists we are supposedly trying to catch. If the TSA would simply profile -- focusing their efforts on people who look insane, Arabs, other Muslims and random males who are in the age category to commit violence -- they would weed out all of the trouble. No more than 10 percent of fliers fit the profile, yet 100 percent of people are forced to take off their shoes in security lines? That doesn't benefit anybody. Nor is there any gain to be had by prohibiting those of us who never would be jihadis from carrying on board, for example, a bottle of sunscreen. (I had to hand over a $12 container of SPF 45 in Maui, just because some crazy Muslims in Britain tried to blow up an airplane using a liquid explosive.)

TSA's policy of treating everyone the same means that my 87 year old mother, who is terribly hard of hearing, has Alzheimer's and weighs about 99 pounds, has to remove her shoes and get scanned for weapons every time she flies. You think a little senile 87 year old woman poses the same threat on an airplane as the three Islamic terrorists pictured above?

A fair question to ask is this: Would I feel the same were I an Arab who looked more less like the guys pictured above? The answer is, "I don't know, but probably no." The reason for objecting would not be that I would have to waste a lot more time being checked for guns, knives or explosives each time I get on a plane than I have to waste now. In fact, if the TNA discriminated and did not bother to check, recheck and hassle endlessly the 90 percent of fliers who don't fit the profile, then I, as an innocent Arab, would be processed much faster. However, the reason I wouldn't like a policy of discrimination is because no one likes to be singled out in that way. It's much less humiliating if 100 percent of fliers have to go through the same check system. So the question then for society is, recognizing this cost of humiliating a minority, is that humiliation cost higher than the cost of wasting our time and resources on the 90 percent who don't fit the profile? I think the answer to that is that the humiliation cost is much lower, but it's still a real cost, and thus we ought to profile. A follow-up question is, wouldn't profiling lead to terrorists changing tactics, using attackers who don't look like the men pictured above? The answer is, the profile is not just based on the person's looks. The profile includes place of origin, religious affiliation, behavior, and other factors that expert profilers can look for. That's the method Israel uses, and it has kept El-Al quite safe for decades. Hopefully, some time not too long from now, Muslims will not be associated with this horrific type of crime. I don't think Islam is inherently violent. No more than any other faith. But I think there is a very large subculture in a lot of Islamic countries which justifies criminal acts of the terrorist sort; and until that subculture is subdued by Muslims who object to violence, this profile will make sense.


Mike Adams said...

Clearly the obvious answer is for everyone to give a DNA sample. If you don't do anything wrong why would you have to worry?

Rich Rifkin said...

There are two reasons why it isn't worth it having everyone give a DNA sample:

1. Because it costs time and money; and
2. Because it's a hassle for people to go down to the police station and give DNA.

Think about Davis, for example. Think how much time and effort it would take on the part of the police and the public to take 65,000 DNA samples. And how much infrastructure the police would have to have to operate that large-scale a program.

As long as we get DNA samples from those who are already in police custody (following an arrest), chances are very strong that the DNA database will be very effective when it needs to be in identifying whose DNA it was which was left at a crime scene.

Rich Rifkin said...

To repeat myself, though, I have no problem with the cops having my DNA. I don't commit crimes and I don't see their having it as any kind of an invasion of my privacy. But if I'm never getting arrested for anything and I have no reason to be at the police station, it's really a waste of their time and money to collect my DNA and a waste of my time to make me go down there to contribute DNA.