ACLU of Massachusetts Calls for End to DNA Dragnet

January 10, 2005 12:00 am

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BOSTON – Calling the use of DNA sweeps unproductive and a potential violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals asked to give such samples, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today called upon law enforcement officials to discontinue use of a DNA dragnet in attempting to solve the Christa Worthington murder case in the Cape Cod town of Truro.

“The mass collection of DNA samples by the police is a serious intrusion on personal privacy that has proven to be both ineffective and wasteful,” said John Reinstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a letter state and local police officials.. “It would be an entirely different matter if this undertaking held at least some prospect of bringing to light information that would help to solve the tragic death of Christa Worthington. But experience and common sense tell us it will not.”

The ACLU letter cites a study released by the Police Professionalism Initiative at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in September 2004, which reported that “a national survey of all the reported cases of police requesting voluntary DNA samples from potential suspects found that the tests successfully identified an offender in only one of 18 cases” and that the one case where the offender was identified was an anomaly. The case involved the rape of a comatose patient in a Lawrence, Massachusetts nursing home. The testing was limited to the pool of known suspects, the 25 male employees of the nursing home who had access to the victim. In contrast, the DNA sweep in Truro targets the nearly 800 male residents over the age of 18.

The ACLU letter also raises questions about the voluntariness of the DNA collection effort, the costs (which the ACLU estimates to be $80,000), and the danger that samples will be entered permanently into state or federal DNA databases.

Police have the legal authority to ask people to submit to voluntary DNA swabs, so long as no one is required or coerced in any way to provide such a sample. Officers seeking samples in Truro, however, reportedly have been confronting people in public settings, asking them in front of other people if they are willing to do their part to help solve a heinous crime, and giving them little time to decide. Moreover, both police and the District Attorney have made public statements suggesting that anyone who refuses will, in effect, become a suspect in the case.

“This is a particularly insidious form of coercion because it attaches a penalty to the assertion of one’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches,” said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “There are many legitimate reasons why an innocent person may not agree to a DNA test, particularly when there are no written guarantees of how the DNA samples will be used in the future.”

“Our knowledge of genetics and DNA is expanding daily, and both the state and federal government maintain extensive DNA databases,” Rose added. “While it may not be the present intention of the police to test for any purpose other than to ‘rule out’ DNA samples in this case, the voluntary surrender of DNA samples without any written guarantees of privacy leaves open the possibility that these samples could be entered into existing state or federal databases, and made available for state or federal perusal for other purposes.”

The University of Nebraska study of DNA sweeps is online at

The ACLU of Massachusetts letter to police officials is online at

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