State DNA database growing
Recent revelations that law enforcement agencies in High Point and elsewhere have databases of licence plate records have spotlighted another evidence-gathering practice on the rise across the state.
Since 2011, police and sheriff’s departments have been collecting DNA samples from suspects charged with certain crimes. Prior to this, DNA profiles were collected from defendants only if they were convicted of a felony or were under a court order to provide a sample.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision last month upheld the practice of taking samples from arrestees, short of conviction.
Local police and sheriff’s personnel collect the samples from suspects by cheek swab as part of their booking procedures for arrestees, when they also snap photos and roll fingerprints.
The cells from DNA samples are sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s lab in Raleigh and entered into federal and state databases.
Law enforcement officials said having arrestees’ DNA in all serious felony cases improves the chances of being able to solve crimes.
“DNA is becoming a more and more refined science, to the point that we’re able to pick up touch DNA from things that we hadn’t been able to get it from in the past,” said Col. Randy Powers of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. “As long as the technology continues to improve, I think it will continue to improve our chances of collecting the culprits.”
Officials said being able to check new DNA profiles against evidence from cold cases increases the likelihood of resolving cases that go unsolved for decades.
“We have solved older cases off of hits,” said High Point police Chief Marty Sumner. “I’m convinced that’s what will make the biggest difference in law enforcement going forward, because it’s so much more exact.”
Statewide, more than 10,000 DNA samples from arrestees have been entered into the state database since the law took effect. Sumner and Powers said their respective agencies don’t track how many samples they’ve sent. Sumner estimated that High Point’s number is in the hundreds based on the number of felony cases police bring.
Samples are required to be expunged from the database if a defendant is acquitted or if the charges are dropped.
The law that established the practice was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which argued that it’s unfair to require suspects to surrender DNA before they’ve had their day in court.
The ACLU raised similar alarms earlier this month about High Point police and 10 other law enforcement agencies in the state using automated license plate readers, which indiscriminately photograph plate numbers of passing and parked vehicles and add them to databases.
The information can provide a match for police officers who might be looking for specific license plate numbers.
The ACLU objected to the program on the grounds that there are no checks on how long police can retain the license plate data and that it gives the government the ability to track the movements of innocent people.
Sumner said his department expunges the license-plate data after one year.
He said the DNA program is well-regulated and limited in its scope.
“That profile is just a minimum profile of you for identification purposes,” he said. “It’s not the medical grade DNA sample where we can know all these other things about you.”
It can take the SBI lab months to process evidence from a homicide scene because of a backlog of cases and not enough chemists to handle the workload, Sumner said.
“Even though the database growing, they still don’t have the capacity to process a large number of samples,” he said.
A state law took effect in 2011 that requires police and sheriff’s departments to collect DNA from people charged with murder, manslaughter, rape and other sex offenses, felony assaults, kidnapping, burglary, arson, armed robbery, stalking and cyberstalking.
As of June 30 of this year, 10,517 samples have been collected from arrestees statewide and 2,001 arrestee expungement requests have been processed. There are 248,255 total DNA profiles in the state database.