U.S. to Expand Collection Of Crime Suspects' DNA

By Ellen Nakashima and Spencer Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 17, 2008

The U.S. government will soon begin collecting DNA samples from all citizens arrested in connection with any federal crime and from many immigrants detained by federal authorities, adding genetic identifiers from more than 1 million individuals a year to the swiftly growing federal law enforcement DNA database.

The policy will substantially expand the current practice of routinely collecting DNA samples from only those convicted of federal crimes, and it will build on a growing policy among states to collect DNA from many people who are arrested. Thirteen states do so now and turn their data over to the federal government.

The initiative, to be published as a proposed rule in the Federal Register in coming days, reflects a congressional directive that DNA from arrestees be collected to help catch a range of domestic criminals. But it also requires, for the first time, the collection of DNA samples from people other than U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who are detained by U.S. authorities.

Although fingerprints have long been collected for virtually every arrestee, privacy advocates say the new policy expands the DNA database, run by the FBI, beyond its initial aim of storing information on the perpetrators of violent crimes.

They also worry that people could be detained erroneously and swept into the database without cause, and that DNA samples from those who are never convicted of a crime, because of acquittal or a withdrawal of charges, might nonetheless be permanently retained by the FBI.

"Innocent people don't belong in a so-called criminal database," said Tania Simoncelli, science adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We're crossing a line."

She said that if the samples are kept, they could one day be analyzed for sensitive information such as diseases and ancestry.

Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said the collection of DNA samples "will provide an additional form of biometric identification from persons who would normally be fingerprinted." FBI rules preclude using DNA samples to determine a person's genetic traits, diseases or disorders.

The database expansion was authorized by Congress as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act and was billed primarily as a way to track down serial rapists, murderers and other offenders. "We know for a fact that the proposed regulations will save the lives of many innocent people and will prevent devastating crimes," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a sponsor of the legislation. "These regulations are long overdue -- we should have done this 10 years ago."

The proposed rule applies to all federal agencies with the authority to arrest or detain, including the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Internal Revenue Service. Although details of the policy have not been announced, officials said they expect the bulk of the new DNA samples to be collected through cheek swabs.

U.S. officials said that when the measure is fully implemented, roughly 1.2 million people a year could be added to the national database. About 140,000 of those would be people arrested for federal crimes. Many of the rest would be foreigners detained for being in the United States illegally.

Immigration rights advocates note that most illegal immigrants are detained for administrative violations, not federal crimes. By adding their DNA to the database, "it casts them all as criminals," said Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

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