A court today ruled unconstitutional the forced collection of blood samples from convicted criminals for a DNA bank. The ruling could have widespread implications, as all 50 states have legislation allowing for similar banks and nearly 40 are actively banking DNA from prisoners and parolees. The samples are used to track down individuals who commit repeated offenses and to crack previously unsolved violent crimes.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council for Responsible Genetics filed the suit on behalf of several prisoners who had resisted the forced testing. The plaintiffs argued that an individual's right to privacy was compromised at little or no benefit to the public, says John Roberts, who directs the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU. Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein agreed, writing in his opinion that forcing blood tests from every prisoner "is unreasonable, therefore, unconstitutional."
This is not the first time that a prisoner DNA bank has been forced to defend itself in court. But all states have "weathered the challenge," says Carl Selavka, director of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab. And, he adds, nothing makes the Massachusetts law especially controversial; indeed, it applies almost exclusively to those convicted of violent crimes, unlike a state like Virginia which draws and banks blood from every felon passing through its prison system.
Existing DNA banks have proved enormously successful at capturing criminals and solving crimes, says Frederick Bieber, an associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. Regarding today's verdict, he predicts, "there will undoubtedly be an appeal."