Over its 16-year history, New York’s DNA database has enabled authorities to identify more than 12,000 criminal suspects, resulting in some 2,800 convictions. The numbers should grow dramatically as a result of its latest expansion last year to include most misdemeanors, as well as all felonies — but not unless the law is tweaked so that more people submit their DNA.
As a story in Thursday’s Gazette indicated, the cheek swab that collects the genetic marker for the state database is mandatory — upon conviction. But not all courts do the collecting, so someone convicted of a minor offense who isn’t put on probation or sent to jail has to voluntarily turn him or herself in to authorities (a sheriff’s deputy, in Montgomery County’s case) at some point within a few weeks or months of conviction to get swabbed. It’s painless (though maybe a pain in the neck for someone who lives far from the sheriff’s office) and only takes a few seconds. But at least in Montgomery County, a high number of people convicted of low-level misdemeanors (all but those involving motor vehicles or minute amounts of marijuana are affected) haven’t been cooperating. That failure complicates life for the sheriff’s department, which must issue warrants, not to mention the courts, which have to adjudicate the charge — second-degree criminal contempt.
Suffice it say that the state Legislature probably never envisioned this snafu, which is more common in upstate towns than in cities, when it passed the law. But a couple of remedies exist. One is that a court officer be asked to take the swab at the time of conviction. (Yes, some training would be required to make sure it’s done right and handled properly.)
Another is that police take the sample at the time of arrest. They do so with fingerprints, so why not DNA? If the suspect is acquitted, the record could be destroyed — as fingerprint records are.
The state’s law, which stipulates the sample should be taken upon conviction, would have to be changed, but why not? The U.S. Supreme Court, in June of this year, affirmed the right of authorities to take suspects’ DNA samples upon arrest. Doing so would surely make it easier on offenders — they wouldn’t have to bother with return trips — and less cumbersome for authorities charged with doing the collecting.