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DNA Database Benefits Outweigh Problems

March 14, 2002  | 

A new law went into effect on Jan. 1 in Michigan. It ordered everyone convicted of a felony or sex-related misdemeanor in Michigan to give authorities a sample of their DNA. This would be very helpful to investigators -- if everything were in place to carry it out.

The samples -- as many as 50,000 this year alone, Michigan State Police say -- would join hundreds of thousands of others in a searchable national database to help detectives chase down criminals based on the DNA evidence they often leave behind.

There just wasn't enough time to put everything into place.

Gov. John Engler signed the measure, an amendment to an existing law, on Sept. 20. But when Jan. 1 arrived, many Oakland County police agencies still hadn't received the swabs they needed to carry out the court orders. Most officers hadn't been trained in the procedure, which involves using special sponge-tipped sticks to swipe the inside of the offender's cheeks.

Even if local agencies had the swabs and the training, the burden of processing all the material and entering the results into the national database falls onto the Michigan State Police Crime lab. The lab had almost no time to prepare for the onslaught.

But the glitches are starting to smooth out. Oakland County authorities created standardized forms and procedures for gathering the samples. Some of those policies are now used elsewhere in the state.

Law enforcement agencies agree that the new law will make the already powerful national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, even better.

Not everyone is happy about that. The American Civil Liberties Union is among those concerned that the newly amended law, which originally targeted only convicted sex offenders, has expanded alarmingly.

This most recent amendment now demands a DNA swab from someone convicted of a misdemeanor indecent exposure, said ACLU spokeswoman Wendy Wagenheim.

"Now we don't delineate between the college kid who gets drunk and urinates in public and the true sexual predator," Wagenheim said. "We're very concerned about the DNA database being expanded to the point of all of us saying, 'Who's next?'"

O'Brien, of the Michigan State crime lab, said there is little difference between fingerprinting felons and taking DNA samples.

The benefits to law enforcement can be tremendous. O'Brien envisions a day when crime-fighting technology is so advanced that would-be criminals would be scared straight by science.

"If, through these laws and the samples that are taken, we can identify a rapist or a killer . . . and that saves one person from going through that, it's probably worthwhile," O'Brien said.

Charles Barna, supervisor of the State Police DNA unit in Lansing, agreed.

Barna said State Police lab workers have had to adjust to the idea of processing between 3,000 and 4,000 samples each month -- compared to between 3,000 and 4,000 each year.

Many of the program's costs are covered by the people being tested. Each person pays $60, which is split among the court, the agency that collects the sample and the State Police.

Barna hopes some of that funding will trickle down to his lab, allowing for more technicians to process the samples.

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