The Democratic Party has long gained political capital and much of its identity by holding itself out as a champion of civil liberties. From supporting free speech to protecting individuals’ privacy, Democrats have presented themselves as defenders of the basic principle that government should protect fundamental rights, and certainly not trample them. Yet recent developments suggest that this commitment to civil liberties may be wavering in one important respect: DNA databases.
Three recent political maneuvers highlight a troubling trend: Democrats’ endorsement of giving government unprecedented powers to expand the size of DNA databases by lowering the bar for collecting and retaining individuals’ DNA samples. Earlier this year, President Obama voiced his support for storing the profiles of those arrested but not convicted of certain crimes in DNA databases, saying “it’s the right thing to do.”
Along similar lines, Governor David Paterson of New York has introduced legislation — initially conceived by former Governor Eliot Spitzer, also a Democrat — that will roughly double the size of the state database by including not only individuals arrested for felonies, but many convicted of low-level misdemeanors. This would make New York the first state to widen the net in this fashion.
But perhaps most consequentially, the United States House of Representatives recently passed legislation that creates millions of dollars in incentives to encourage states to mandate taking DNA samples from individuals arrested for (but not necessarily charged with or convicted of) certain crimes. This provision (H.R. 4614) is part of the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act of 2010, named after the tragic rape and murder of a young New Mexico woman. The bill provides a 5% bonus in federal money granted to states under a justice assistance program for “minimum DNA collection,” which includes taking DNA samples from felony arrestees of specified major crimes. A 10% bonus would be given to states that partake in “enhanced” collection, which includes the extra step of taking DNA from those arrested for specified lesser crimes.