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March 11, 2013

Legal Aspects of DNA Samples in Criminal Justice System

Today, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing provides forensic experts with a powerful and an effective tool to identify criminals and exonerate innocent individuals. (1). DNA testing (also known as DNA profiling or DNA typing) involves analysis of DNA samples taken from individuals. These samples may include hair, semen, blood, or any other cell and tissue from human body. Results of this analysis provide unique identification of every person, as biological information contained in DNA is unique to every person excluding cases of identical twins. In criminal investigations, DNA analysis involves comparison of DNA samples collected from a crime scene with DNA samples taken from suspected individuals or DNA information stored in electronic databases. (1) A match between the two samples demonstrates culpability of the individual associated with DNA samples. Various legal aspects characterize DNA profiling and use of DNA evidence in courts of law. These legal aspects address issues surrounding DNA analysis during pre-trial, presentation of DNA evidence in courts, and post-conviction DNA typing.

DNA Analysis during Pre-trial
Legal features of DNA typing during pre-trial address issues, such as preservation of DNA samples as well as crimes and suspected individuals considered appropriate for DNA typing. (2). During criminal investigations, law enforcement agents are required to do DNA tests of samples collected from crime scenes. This involves collecting and typing DNA specimens including semen, blood, hair, or saliva found in scenes of criminal activities. Federal and state statutes also require the agents to preserve the analyzed DNA samples in electronic databases to facilitate comparison between these samples and those taken from suspected individuals. For example, Maddux observes that the DNA Identification Act of 1994 requires federal agents to store results of DNA tests from crime scenes in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). (3). This database combines results of DNA analysis from the National DNA Index System (NDIS), the State DNA Index System (SDIS), and the Local DNA Index System (LDIS). Combination of these databases facilitates inter-state exchange of DNA information, which makes it easier for the federal and state criminal investigation officers to effectively identify and arrest criminals. However, the types of crimes and individuals for which preservation of pre-trial DNA test results is allowed varies from some states to others.

Majority of state statutes including Minnesota, California, Virginia, and Texas comply with the Federal DNA Act, which governs DNA analysis during pre-trial period. As Regensburger observes, the act stipulates people who should submit DNA specimens, appropriate criminal activities for DNA typing, agents who should do DNA tests, and acceptable use of the DNA test results. (4). It restricts the analysis to all individuals charged, arrested, or convicted of particular forms of criminal activities including misdemeanor crimes and felonies. It also requires discarding of DNA samples of arrestees who have been found innocent. The act stipulates that only state agencies, federal agencies, and other accredited agencies can perform the DNA analysis. It also restricts exchange of information stored in DNA databases among these agencies. The information can only be used for criminal investigations or civil trials. DNA tests facilitate determination of culpability or innocence of suspected individuals in criminal investigations. In civil trials, they are used to determine identity or paternity of parties to a dispute. However, some states including North Carolina and Kansas prohibit DNA typing of arrestees. They only mandate their law enforcement agencies to collect, test, and preserve DNA specimens of individuals charged or convicted of felonies and misdemeanor crimes.

Despite the various benefits of use of DNA tests in criminal investigations, critics argue that the analysis violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (5). DNA testing helps law enforcement to effectively identify individuals involved in criminal activities. It also minimizes likelihood of wrongly incriminating or convicting innocent people. In addition, it presents a valuable tool for determining and addressing recidivism associated with particular crimes in a region. However, DNA testing encroaches into privacy of individuals, as the process can give information not related to the criminal act under investigation. For example, Maddux notes DNA profiling can show predisposition of individuals to particular health conditions, such as genetic and lifestyle health problems. (3). In addition, DNA typing can be done without knowledge of the affected individual, which violates rights of individuals to reasonable seizures and searches. However, in many cases, courts have held analysis of DNA samples of individuals without their consent does not infringe on the Fourth Amendment.

In the case of the State vs. Christian, the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld a previous court ruling that convicted Peter Christian of two counts of sexual abuse. (6). In the initial trial, Emily had returned to her home while drunk. Consequently, she forgot to lock door to her house and fell asleep in a couch while watching television. Aware of Emily’s condition, Christian entered into the house and engaged in sexual intercourse with Emily without her consent. Suspecting sexual abuse, Emily’s friends took Emily for medical checkup. The examining physician forwarded some samples and Emily’s personal effects to Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation for DNA profiling. After comparing the test results with information in SDIS, the department found that Christian was involved in another sexual assault within the state. After learning that Christina would be present in a job interview, the department sent an undercover agent the interview. The agent collected a water bottle that Christian used during the interview. DNA analysis on the bottle resulted in a match between test results and information obtained from profiling of samples taken from Emily and her personal effects. Consequently, Christian was arrested and convicted of the two counts of sexual abuse. However, he appealed against the ruling, arguing that the DNA evidence infringed on its privacy because it was obtained without his consent. In its ruling, the Iowa Courts of Appeal ruled against Christian’s submission, arguing that seizure and search of an abandoned property does not violate a person’s right to privacy.

Use of DNA Evidence in Courts
During trial, legal facets of DNA typing provide guidelines for presenting related evidence in a lawfully admissible manner. They mainly deal with who should present the DNA evidence and standards of admissibility of the evidence. In comparison to other forms of scientific evidence, judicial presentation of DNA evidence is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. This statute stipulates that only forensic experts in a relevant field should submit scientific facts regarding a case under consideration. This implies that only experts on DNA testing can participate in submission of DNA facts in a court of law. The experts are required to show methods used to collect DNA samples, types of DNA analysis used, and procedures used to draw inferences during the tests. Courts rely on two legal standards to determine admissibility of the submitted DNA evidence: the Frye standard and Daubert test. (7).

The Frye standard bases judicial admissibility of DNA evidence on universal acceptability of type of testing applied to analyze samples. This test was adopted from a 1923 court ruling in the case of Frye vs. United States. (7). This ruling argued against admissibility of evidence taken using a blood pressure-based lie detector on grounds that the technology was not widely accepted in the relevant scientific community. Under this standard, courts require forensic experts to demonstrate relevancy of methods used to collect and profile DNA samples, as well as procedures used to make evidential conclusions. Today, this standard is still used in presentation of evidence relating to DNA samples in state courts. However, the Daubert test remains the widely used admissibility standard today in both federal and state courts.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court in case of Daubert and Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Company annulled use of the Frye standard in federal courts. (8). The plaintiff (Daubert’s family) sued the defendant (Merrell Dow Company) in a District Court. In its submission, the family argued the company’s drug that the mother had been taking while pregnant had caused birth defects to their two children. The family’s expert witnesses presented scientific evidence showing that the drug was known to cause birth defects in animals. In defense, the company’s expert witnesses submitted scientific evidence that indicated that although the drug resulted in health problems in animals, it had no known effects on humans. Based on the Frye test, the District Court ruled in favor of the company, arguing that the plaintiff failed to prove wider acceptance of their evidence in the relevant scientific field. Dissatisfied with the ruling, the family appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court held that the 1975 Federal Rules of Evidence succeeded the Frye standard.

Based on these rules, the court upheld the initial ruling by the District Court. In its ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that scientific evidence should not only be relevant to appropriate scientific community, but also rationally reliable. It adopted five principles to guide federal courts in determining acceptability of scientific evidence. (8). First, it required the methods used to obtain the evidence to be testable. Secondly, it required the methods to have passed through peer review to ascertain their relevancy. Other principles included universal acceptability of the methods and accompanying technology; existence of standards to govern application of the methods; and presentation of possible error rates associated with the methods. These principles, known as the Daubert test, replaced the Frye test as the guidelines for judicial presentation of scientific evidence. In determining acceptability of DNA evidence, both federal and state courts today require forensic experts to demonstrate testability, acceptability, reliability, potential error rates, and existence of standards of techniques and technologies used in doing the DNA tests.

Post-Conviction DNA Profiling
Legal aspects in post-conviction DNA typing provide convicted individuals with a legal framework to request DNA tests if they are not satisfied with court rulings. These aspects address circumstances in which DNA profiling is allowed. Chambliss observes that in more than 40 states, convicted criminals are allowed to apply for post-conviction DNA tests if they have exhausted all possible opportunities for appeal without success. (9). The statutes also allow prisoners to apply for the tests if the analysis is likely to incriminate other individuals. However, the aspects limit the DNA analysis to certain crimes and evidence that, in comparison to pre-trial DNA typing, vary from state. For instance, the Title 17 (Chapter 28) of South Carolina’s criminal code limits DNA typing after conviction to murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, armed robbery, robbery with violence, and other related crimes. (10). This statute only allows analysis of DNA evidence that was used originally to convict the individuals applying for the analysis. Other legal differences include preservation of post-conviction DNA evidence; agents allowed to conduct the analysis; and individuals or agencies responsible for settling expenses incurred during the profiling. Other states including Massachusetts, Alaska, and Alabama, prohibit DNA profiling after conviction of suspected individuals.

Legal aspects underlying use of DNA typing in criminal justice system address issues surrounding DNA analysis during pre-trial, presentation of DNA evidence in courts, and DNA typing after conviction. In pre-trial, these features address collection and preservation of DNA samples as well as crimes and suspected individuals considered appropriate for DNA typing. During criminal investigations, law enforcement agents are required to do DNA tests of samples collected from crime scenes and store them in electronic databases. In addition, the Federal DNA Act, which governs DNA analysis during pre-trial period, stipulates people who should submit DNA specimens, appropriate criminal activities for DNA typing, agents who should do DNA tests, and acceptable use of the DNA test results. Legal aspects in post-conviction DNA typing provide guidelines on circumstances under which convicted individuals can request for DNA tests if they are not satisfied with court rulings. During trial, the legal facets mainly deal with who should present the DNA evidence and standards of admissibility of the evidence. Like any other scientific evidence, courts frequently use the Daubert and the Frye standards to determine acceptability of DNA evidence submitted by forensic experts.

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