By Ken Marrero, Op-Ed, Washington Examiner: In 2007 a Tennessee law was passed, as many bad laws are, in response to a horrific crime.
Johnia Berry was murdered in 2004. Her parents asked then state Sen. Ron Ramsey to consider working with a national DNA database to assist in a stalled investigation. He introduced a bill mandating collection of DNA samples from those arrested for violent felonies. In addition to Tennessee, 23 states have adopted similar legislation.
This year, Ramsey, now Tennessee's lieutenant governor, wants to expand mandatory collection to persons arrested for any felony via TN SB 257. Supporters contend this collection is no different from the photographing and fingerprinting to which felony arrestees are currently subject.
Detractors appeal to the Fourth and Fifth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and question requiring citizens to surrender a part of "their person" for a criminal case which might "[compel him] ... to be a witness against himself" as well as being deprived of his "property" without "due process."
If charges are dropped or the accused is not convicted, the sample is destroyed. Detractors see this as an acknowledgment of the bill's weakness. If the criteria for sample retention is a conviction, why not delay collection until then?
Additionally, there is significant distrust that samples are safe in the custody of government. Ramsey notes as many as 15 percent of the samples may be subject to destruction. Will these merely be stored until the donor's case is decided or might they be compared against other databases in the meantime for potential matches to other crimes?
Who collects, processes, stores and destroys them? Ramsey is confident the law's criminal penalties for mishandling samples are a sufficient safeguard against misuse. Others remain suspicious of government's record as a watchdog for individual rights.
Such suspicions may be downplayed until one learns of the development of a portable, high-speed DNA scanner and plans by the federal government to hand the technology over to the Transportation Security Administration. Controversies surrounding TSA's use of technology and clashes with the liberties of citizens are well publicized.
Handing over portable, high-speed DNA testing devices to TSA can only lead to an exponential increase in the potential for the disregard of individual liberties. As with backscatter scanners, implementing it in as public and high-profile an arena as our nation's airports will not improve air travel safety. It will, however, serve to further soften the resolve of citizens to resist such unwarranted infiltrations of the state into their daily lives.
Technical innovation is welcomed by the law abiding. But I cannot sanction violating one law while enforcing another. The pursuit of justice must not itself create injustices and securing the rights of the people must remain the highest priority of government.
In a rapidly changing technical environment and with the ability of multiple jurisdictions to pass laws concerning the collection and use of DNA, extreme vigilance must be maintained to ensure the rights and liberties of Americans are not trampled in the process.
A good start would be serious revisions to TN SB 257 and to halt the introduction of portable DNA scanners in our nation's airports until the ethical questions inherent in such technology have been fully asked and answered.
Ken Marrero has blogged at BlueCollarMuse.com since 2006 and is the founder of the Tennessee ConserVOLiance, a statewide blogger alliance in Tennessee.
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