In Our View: DNA Testing: Trust the Truth

U.S. Supreme Court made correct ruling in case involving Maryland law

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Four years ago, The Columbian editorialized that DNA testing of suspects should be allowed after arrests in serious criminal cases. We answered the invasion-of-privacy complaint by pointing out that DNA tests are no more intrusive than fingerprints or mug shots of suspects, which have been legal and useful for years.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that direction, upholding a Maryland law in a 5-to-4 decision. It was the proper ruling for the same reasons described in the 2009 editorial, which supported a bill in the Legislature that would have allowed DNA testing of arrestees in serious crime cases. The bill carried the provision that a DNA profile would be removed from a database if there is no conviction.

That bill failed, as did a similar bill in 2012 sponsored by current state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, who was a member of the state House at the time. As The News Tribune reported, that bill "would have required collection of DNA samples from persons arrested for major felonies and two gross misdemeanors: stalking and violating a protection order. State law already allows for DNA collection upon conviction or with a search warrant." Darneille's measure declared that a "suspect found not guilty or whose charge was reduced to a misdemeanor could ask that the DNA sample be destroyed and removed from the DNA identification system." That bill, too, did not pass.

But we suspect this week's Supreme Court ruling might resurrect legislators' interest in the collection of DNA samples, which Maryland Attorney General Doug Gensler told the high court is "the fingerprinting of the 21st century."

One revealing perspective — and a view that should help assuage invasion-of-privacy concerns — was provided in a usnews.com story. Reporter Elizabeth Flock explained that a DNA swab in these cases does reveal identity. The test "doesn't capture the entire DNA strand, but instead just a profile of 13 markers isolated from some 3 billion." Those markers were chosen by genetic scientists in such a way as to avoid outright identification. Knowing to whom that profile belongs cannot be established until after a match is made in a database search.

Another point in answer to critics of the Supreme Court decision was made in our 2009 editorial, that DNA evidence "has been used to establish unquestioned innocence. This has served to exonerate innocent people, and in the most troubling cases, the release of innocent people who have been incarcerated, some for years. … DNA testing has become one of the most powerful and accurate tools in the history of criminal investigations."

More than two dozen states allow collection of DNA samples of people who are arrested in serious criminal cases. Washington's Legislature should revisit this issue next year.

In the final analysis, DNA testing should be seen for precisely what it is: pristine, immutable science, often an exquisite method of protecting innocent people.

Concerns about snooping Big Brother are valid, but they fade when DNA is viewed as a modern improvement on long-standing practices such as collecting fingerprints and shooting mug shots.