Tactics To Get DNA Disputed

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

The case of a 14-year-old Prince George's County boy, linked to a sexual assault after police stopped him on a street corner and swabbed him for DNA, could break legal ground on when and how police secure such evidence from juvenile offenders, legal experts said.

Dominick L. Edelen, the Temple Hills boy being charged as an adult, was indicted last week on one count of sexual assault in connection with a March 29 incident involving a 13-year-old girl. Edelen was arrested April 21 and is being held without bond at the Prince George's jail.

Edelen's attorney, Richard Finci, has now filed a motion to throw out the DNA evidence and dismiss the indictment, saying his client did not give "knowing and voluntary consent" to the taking of the DNA sample.

Police officers, he said, lied about why they wanted the sample and left the impression that the boy's father had given his consent. The teenager signed a consent form only after giving a sample, his father said. Prince George's police would not discuss the case, but court records indicate that the officer had no search warrant to take the sample and that Edelen was not under arrest.

The case in the county Circuit Court pits police, who rely increasingly on DNA to solve cases, against defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates who say courts need to establish better guidelines on how such evidence is secured from those younger than 18.

Some legal experts questioned the conduct of Prince George's police and said it could damage the prosecution's case. If Edelen is convicted, he could have grounds for an appeal that could help establish law where the courts have remained vague, they said.

"What you have in this case is a warrantless search of a child's mouth," said Steve Benjamin, an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. Police, he said, could easily have obtained a warrant or found another way to secure the sample.

"All they would have had to do was follow the kid until he blew his nose on a tissue and dropped it or dropped a soda can, and they could have the DNA," Benjamin said. "This is stupid, unimaginative and lazy police work that may have jeopardized a very strong case."

Edelen, an eighth-grader at G. Gardner Shugart Middle School, told his parents and attorney that he was walking home from a friend's home April 4 when he was approached by a detective.

The detective, Edelen said, told him he was investigating a robbery at a Wendy's restaurant and wanted to rule the teenager out as a suspect. The detective took Edelen's cellphone and scrolled down to the number for his father, then called, saying he wanted to confirm the youth's identity.

John Edelen said he identified his son in a short conversation with the officer, but the subject of DNA never came up. After the officer hung up, he took out a cotton swab and asked Edelen to open his mouth, the teenager told his parents.

Afterward, the officer pulled out a form and asked the youth to sign it. Edelen told his father that although he could not see what it said, he signed it because he did not want to disobey the officer.

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