MA. High Court Allows Forcible Collection of Prisoners' DNA

April 14, 1999 12:00 am

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BOSTON, MA — In a decision harshly criticized by civil libertarians, the state’s highest court has ruled that blood samples may be forcibly taken from convicted criminals to create a statewide DNA database, the Boston Globe reported today.

The ruling overturned a decision by Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein, who said last summer that the state’s 1997 DNA collection law was unconstitutional because it violated state and federal protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

In a 27-page opinion written by Associate Justice John Greaney, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that “the high government interest in a particularly reliable form of identification outweighs the minimal intrusion of a pinprick.” Yet the idea of government agencies compiling genetic profiles of select individuals is a chilling prospect to many civil libertarians and prisoners’ rights advocates, who denounced yesterday’s ruling.

“I think the court has trivialized the dangers that are inherent in DNA testing,” said John Reinstein, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which along with the Committee for Public Counsel Services represented the seven inmates who challenged the law.

“Fingerprinting does not require the state to puncture the surface of the skin to take a sample of one’s bodily fluids, and it does not disclose intimate details of one’s genetic makeup,” Reinstein told the Globe. “The court today has taken dangerous steps toward the diminution of security and privacy rights protected by our state and federal constitutions.”

DNA testing is based on the premise that the unique genetic code found in a strand of hair, a flake of skin, or a drop of blood, semen, or saliva can conclusively determine a person’s identity, the Globe said.

Privacy advocates said that taking inmates’ blood is unnecessarily invasive, particularly when it is done involuntarily. Opponents also told the Globe that minorities are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites, raising questions of whether the provision will be used in a racist fashion. And they argued that DNA samples could be misused for research and other inappropriate purposes.

The law was also criticized in friend-of-the-court briefs filed by Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Council for Responsible Genetics, among others.

According to the paper, all 50 states now have laws allowing such databases. The ACLU recently launched an online Defend Your Data Campaign that is designed to alert citizens to the fact that the government and the private sector are in the process of carrying out the most frightening invasion of personal privacy in the nation’s history.

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