Police departments in at least four states—Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina —have pioneered a new policy that poses a serious threat to Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights: collecting DNA samples from innocent people not suspected or charged with any crime.
This is happening during police interactions as routine as a traffic stop, which means it could affect literally anyone:
Imagine this: A teenage boy who just received his driver’s license is pulled over by a police officer because one of his car’s tail lights is out. While writing out the fix-it ticket, the officer asks the teen if he wants to provide a DNA sample. The young man, unaware that law does not require it, agrees. His DNA is now part of a private police database and will most likely be kept on file for years.
It’s a scenario that plays out fairly often across the US, according to a recent ProPublica investigation that revealed police in small towns in Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina have been collecting ostensibly voluntary DNA samples from people who have not committed, and in some cases are not even suspected of committing, any particular crime.
This is troubling for three big reasons.
First, as I mentioned, it’s at least a threat—if not an outright violation—of our Fourth Amendment rights. Law enforcement are not allowed to subject our bodies to unreasonable search without probable cause and a warrant, neither of which is present here. Police might argue a simple DNA swab isn’t an unreasonable search because it’s quick and painless, yet the problem isn’t the physical procedure but rather the extent of information gathered without due process.
Second, this is in super shady legal territory, even beyond the issue of constitutionality. This is something even advocates of the DNA dragnet admit. “There’s no laws, there’s nothing,” said Frederick Harran, director of public safety in Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, where this practice is in use. “We’re in uncharted territory. There’s nothing governing what we’re doing.” The government by definition should not be acting outside of the law.
And third, the effects of this policy have the potential to be huge, because most people frankly don’t know their rights. Were I stopped by the police and asked for a voluntary DNA swab, I’d refuse—because I know that I can. But I also write about Fourth Amendment issues for a living; the average American probably isn’t as aware of what their constitutional rights entail. Couple that ignorance with widespread respect for police officers and you’ve got rapidly filling biometric databases.
That’s a dangerous prospect, and legislators in these four states would do well to shut this down.