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Men Targeted by ‘DNA Dragnetâ€TM Demand Return, Destruction of Samples

by Kevin Bersett

After giving their DNA to law enforcement officials in order to clear themselves in a Louisiana murder case, 19 men are suing to keep their samples out of a criminal database.

Nov. 9, 2004 – Several men targeted in a so-called "DNA dragnet" that was used by Baton Rouge police to search for a serial killer in Louisiana recently have filed a lawsuit in federal court. The plaintiffs are asking for the return or destruction of their genetic samples.

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The men also ask the court to declare unconstitutional a state law requiring certain arrestees to give DNA samples. In Louisiana, police take and store DNA samples from any felony arrestee, regardless of whether or not the person is eventually convicted.

According to news reports, 19 men are suing Louisiana State Police Superintendent Colonel Henry Whitehorn, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Elmer Litchfield and Iberia Parish Sheriff Sid Hebert claiming they were coerced into giving the samples in order to clear themselves in the serial murder investigation.

Authorities kept the samples even after the men were cleared of any connection to the slayings, and are storing the genetic information in government databases that can be accessed by law enforcement agencies investigating other crimes, according to the lawsuit. State law does not describe what police should do with the DNA collected from people who voluntarily give samples.

As reported previously by The NewStandard, the dragnet in Louisiana asked more than 1,000 people to "voluntarily" give DNA samples over the course of ten months but turned up no viable suspects. The procedure gave way to an earlier class-action lawsuit accusing the police of violating the Fourth Amendment rights of those sampled without written consent. Part of that lawsuit was thrown out in August because of a technicality, and the rest has been delayed.

Derrick Todd Lee, who was not targeted in the DNA dragnet, recently was convicted of two of the murders that occurred between September 2001 and March 2003 and has been sentenced to death.

In related news, a voter-approved proposition in California has greatly enhanced law enforcement’s ability to collect DNA samples from prison inmates and suspects arrested for some crimes. Proposition 69, which won by a margin of 62 to 38 percent, mandates that law enforcement collect a DNA sample from each adult and juvenile convicted of a felony in California. Officials will also collect samples from everyone arrested for murder or certain sex offenses, again regardless of whether or not they are convicted. The law is set to expand in 2009 to direct law enforcement to collect samples from all people arrested for felony offenses.

The ACLU, which has been fighting a losing battle against DNA databases, opposes the samples from dragnets and from unconvicted arrestees being added to the databases. The ACLU contends that state and national databases should be limited to samples taken from convicted violent felons where biological evidence is relevant. The group says that adding the DNA of exonerated people caught up in dragnets would put information about innocent people into a database for criminals.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Kevin Bersett is a contributing journalist.

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