The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 10, 2013

Arrestee DNA collection ruled constitutional: What does it mean?

June 10, 2013

dna

Last Monday, the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) upheld a Maryland law that allows the collection of DNA from individuals arrested for serious crimes.

On the same day, the Urban Institute released its own research on the policies, practices, and implications of collecting DNA at arrest. Two of the studies’ authors, Justice Policy Center Senior Fellow Julie Samuels and Research Associate Dwight Pope, discussed their research and some of the implications of the Court’s decision.

What’s the status of arrestee DNA collection in the United States?

Over the past decade, there’s been a large increase in DNA profiles in the National DNA Index System (NDIS). Many are associated with individuals whose DNA was collected at arrest or charging, which is authorized through legislation passed by Congress and more than half the states throughout the country.

Though it’s been argued that the practice is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional for those arrested for serious crimes. Some states may have been waiting to see how the case was decided, so it’s possible that more will adopt arrestee DNA legislation.

In theory, collecting DNA from arrestees effectively expands DNA databases because you’re drawing from a larger population. An underlying assumption is that more DNA profiles in databases will lead to more opportunities for profiles to be linked to evidence from unsolved crimes.

Another assumption is that by collecting DNA sooner in a case—for example, at arrest—crimes may be solved faster.

Who can be subjected to DNA collection?

It depends on the state. Thirteen collect from all felonies, while fourteen limit collection to a subset of felonies, typically involving violence, sexual assault, and property crimes. Seven also collect from individuals arrested or charged with select misdemeanors. One state, Oklahoma, authorizes DNA collection at arrest from “any alien unlawfully present under federal immigration law.”

Federal law authorizes collection from all arrestees and non-US citizens detained by the US government.

What about those who are arrested, but ultimately not charged with, or convicted of, a crime?

In most states that authorize DNA collection from arrestees, individuals who are not charged or convicted may request that their DNA profile be removed from the database. It’s up to them to initiate the process, which usually requires obtaining a court order that is then sent to the laboratory.

Labs in these states have indicated that few removals (or expungements, as they’re officially called) actually occur, effectively resulting in profiles that are stored in the database for an indeterminate amount of time. 

A few laws (like Maryland’s) require the state to automatically remove an arrestee DNA profile from the database if the individual isn’t charged or convicted. Automatic expungement can be resource-intensive for laboratories, as they are generally responsible for tracking case outcomes in these states.

What are some of the challenges to implementation?

The two biggest challenges are costs and time, with most of the burden falling on the state labs, which will need to hire and train new staff, change existing processes, and train collection agencies. Implementation will likely also result in more administrative work, such as verifying sample eligibility, identifying duplicate submissions, and monitoring compliance.

Is arrestee DNA collection actually worth it? Does it result in more convictions?

It’s hard to say. Most states do not reclassify arrestee profiles as convicted offender profiles upon conviction. A match—or hit—linking an arrestee profile to crime scene evidence may occur after the individual has been convicted and would have submitted a sample anyway. At the NDIS level, the FBI does not yet report data on hits associated with arrestee profiles.

Most states that provided data for this study indicated the number of hits associated with arrestee profiles, but they didn’t break down the data further to identify how many were associated with profiles from arrestees who were not subsequently convicted, or how many occurred between arrest and conviction.

Two states were able to determine the number of hits attributed to arrestee profiles that would not have occurred—or would have occurred later—if DNA was only collected upon conviction. In these states, arrestee profiles did increase the number of resulting hits, investigations aided, and successful prosecutions.

DNA image from Shutterstock.

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