ProPublica, By Lauren Kirchner, September 12
Police in Florida and other states are building up private DNA databases, in part by collecting voluntary samples from people not charged with — or even suspected of — any particular crime.
The five teenage boys were sitting in a parked car in a gated community in Melbourne, Florida, when a police officer pulled up behind them.
Officer Justin Valutsky closed one of the rear doors, which had been ajar, and told them to stay in the car. He peered into the drivers’ side window of the white Hyundai SUV and asked what the teens were doing there. It was a Saturday night in March 2015 and they told Valutsky they were visiting a friend for a sleepover.
Valutsky told them there had been a string of car break-ins recently in the area. Then, after questioning them some more, he made an unexpected demand: He asked which one of them wanted to give him a DNA sample.
Over the last decade, collecting DNA from people who are not charged with — or even suspected of — any particular crime has become an increasingly routine practice for police in smaller cities not only in Florida, but in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and North Carolina as well.
While the largest cities typically operate public labs and feed DNA samples into the FBI’s national database, cities like Melbourne have assembled databases of their own, often in partnership with private labs that offer such fast, cheap testing that police can afford to amass DNA even to investigate minor crimes, from burglary to vandalism.
And to compile samples for comparison, some jurisdictions also have quietly begun asking people to turn over DNA voluntarily during traffic stops, or even during what amount to chance encounters with police. In Melbourne, riding a bike at night without two functioning lights can lead to DNA swab — even if the rider is a minor.
“In Florida law, basically, if we can ask consent, and if they give it, we can obtain it,” said Cmdr. Heath Sanders, the head of investigations at the Melbourne Police Department. “We’re not going to be walking down the street and asking a five-year-old to stick out his tongue. That’s just not reasonable. But’s let’s say a kid’s 15, 16 years old, we can ask for consent without the parents.”
In Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, those stopped for DUI or on the street for acting suspiciously may be asked for DNA. Director of Public Safety Frederick Harran credits the burgeoning DNA database Bensalem now shares with Bucks County’s 38 other police departments with cutting burglaries in the township by 42 percent in the first four years of the program. Plus, Bensalem pays for the testing — which is conducted by a leading private lab, Bode Cellmark Forensics — with drug forfeiture money, making it essentially free, Harran added.
“This has probably been the greatest innovation in local law enforcement since the bulletproof vest,” Harran said. “It stops crime in its tracks…. So why everyone’s not doing it, I don’t know.”
Private DNA databases have multiplied as testing technology has become more sophisticated and sensitive, enabling labs to generate profiles from so-called “touch” or “trace” DNA consisting of as little as a few skin cells. Automated “Rapid DNA” machines allow police to analyze DNA right at the station in a mere 90 minutes. Some states allow “familial searching” of databases, which can identify people with samples from family members. New software can even create composite mugshots of suspects using DNA to guess at skin and eye color.
“My concern, being in the medical field, is that it’s not just Adam’s DNA,” he said. (ProPublica is withholding his name to protect the privacy of his son.) “It’s my DNA, it’s my wife’s DNA, and our parents. Not to sound bad, but you just get nervous. There’s some collateral damage there.”
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