Supreme Court ruling on DNA brings California's more expansive law into focus
Yet civil liberties advocates point out that the information contained in a DNA sample can reveal much more about an individual than either a fingerprint or a unique identifier generated from a sample.
"There's a basic difference between your DNA and your fingerprint," Risher explains. "Your fingerprint doesn't tell you anything about yourself. And your DNA is your genetic blueprint. The profile that they generate might not say a lot about you ... but they are keeping these physical samples. Current law says they can't be tested for sensitive things, but laws change, and people can violate them."
And a properly preserved DNA sample can last hundreds of thousands of years — essentially forever.
ANTI-WAR PROTESTER ASKED FOR DNA
Lily Haskell has been fighting the state of California over DNA collection ever since her arrest in March of 2009, at an anti-war demonstration in downtown San Francisco. Held to commemorate the anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, the protest was staged in Civic Center Plaza. "With no prior warning, police charged the crowd, penned us in, arrested us, and charged us with trying to incite a riot," she told us.
But hours later, after she and a handful of others had been processed at the San Francisco County Jail, Haskell was summoned from her holding cell and presented with what struck her as an odd request. Although she says she had already been fingerprinted, and her identity already confirmed, an officer "told me I had to provide a DNA sample."
Her first instinct was to decline. "I didn't believe it was just to have to comply with that," she said. "I told them I believed it was my right to refuse." Haskell was told that if she continued to resist the sample collection, she'd be charged with a misdemeanor and would likely spend a few additional nights in jail. So she relented.
Although she was neither charged with a crime nor tried for a felony or any other offense after being released from jail 24 hours later, Haskell's DNA sample remains in the state databank. Now she's a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
Haskell said she's never tried to get her DNA expunged from the state database, because she sees her participation in the lawsuit as an important challenge to a law she views as unjust. "I don't want my DNA to be held," Haskell says, "and I don't want anybody else's DNA to be held, either."
Individuals who have tried to go the route of having DNA samples removed have found it can be tedious. "In California, the process of getting your DNA out of a database if your case ends in dismissal or acquittal is an onerous one," Roth explained. "You have to pay your own filing and attorney fees, you have to wait until the statute of limitations has run, the judge has complete discretion to deny your motion, and you can't appeal the judge's decision."
Legal upshot still unclear
Meanwhile, ACLU attorneys in Northern California were closely watching the Supreme Court case, Maryland v. King, to see how it might affect their class-action challenge to Prop. 69, a case known as Haskell v. Harris. Although a divided panel of Ninth Circuit judges upheld the law in February of 2012, the court took the unusual step last July of voting to rehear the case en banc, with a nine-judge panel. However, the court issued an order after oral arguments saying it wouldn't issue a ruling until King had been decided in the Supreme Court.
"Yes, they will have to do something with our case — but what they do is actually up to them," Risher explained. "There's no binding opinion in our case right now. Everything was up in the air waiting for King to be decided."