The law enforcement process used to consist of obtaining a warrant, cornering the suspect and putting them in a cell. After that came the trial and the conviction. But starting July 1 of this year, there will be an added procedure in Michigan — automatically obtaining the arrested person’s DNA.
Later this year, people who are arrested for crimes like murder, assault and robbery will immediately have the insides of their cheeks swabbed and their DNA recorded in a national database. It will then be analyzed to see if there is a possible match for a previous crime. Under Michigan’s previous law, only the DNA of convicted criminals was put into the database. Laws that require any person arrested for a violent crime to submit their DNA are already in effect in several U.S. states.
Proponents of the legislation argue that this will be a useful tool for law enforcement agencies to solve cold cases. In some cases, the DNA could prove convicted individuals innocent. These are worthy goals, but a simple cost-benefit analysis shows that the problems accompanying this legislation outweigh its proposed benefits.
To begin with, this isn’t a very effective use of the state’s money. The new legislation will cost the state $1 million to staff crime labs. Right now, the state could do better by spending its money on more pressing needs. For example, a state legislature committee on spending recently suggested that the state cut financial aid and scholarship funding to the University. The state should be cutting down where it can to protect the quality of higher education, which will determine the direction of the state’s economy as its automotive and manufacturing-based market fails. A procedure that potentially infringes on the civil rights of citizens certainly isn’t pressing enough to outweigh the needs of higher education and benefits that it provides for the state’s economy.
Opponents of the bill have also argued that this legislation may constitute a breach of civil liberties. And they’re right — people who are arrested are now being labeled as criminals instantly, without being given the presumption of innocence that is vital to our legal system. This could potentially start a new type of discrimination where employers request DNA samples from applicants.
And, even for people who are never charged with a crime, a close DNA match could be enough to condemn them. Employers might argue that because a family member is a criminal, a potential employee is not fit for hiring. That may seem like a long shot, but it’s not impossible.
The noble aim of solving cold cases may not even be all that feasible. As it turns out, it’s been reported that some victims from unsolved cases are unwilling to partake in any follow up investigations. USA Today pointed out that reopening cases “can awaken frightening memories, some decades old, in victims and their families” (Push to solve cold cases has benefits — and costs, 12/23/2008). The report also notes that even when victims are willing to testify, prosecution is not possible if the statute of limitations for filing charges has expired. So even if a victim wants to prosecute based on DNA evidence, it sometimes isn’t possible.
It’s true that this new legislation could be a benefit in some cases, but the problems it raises are plentiful than the potential good it could do. It’s expensive, and more importantly, it sticks people with a label who may not have done anything wrong.
Sutha Kanagasingam is an LSA junior.