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Court ruling will allow N.C. DNA database to grow

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

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  • N.C. DNA collections

    In 2011, deputies and police in North Carolina began collecting DNA from people charged with the following crimes:

    • First- and second-degree murder.

    • Manslaughter.

    • Rape and other sex offenses.

    • Felony assaults.

    • Kidnapping, abduction and human trafficking.

    • Burglary.

    • Arson.

    • Armed robbery.

    • Offenses that require a person to register as a sex offender.

    • Stalking.

    • Cyberstalking.

    • Aiding and abetting someone who is charged with one of the above crimes.



A U.S. Supreme Court decision this week ensures that North Carolina’s DNA profile database, which contains hundreds of thousands of samples, will continue to grow.

On Monday, the court affirmed that states can take DNA samples from people arrested for certain crimes.

The state has maintained a database of DNA profiles since 1994. But police agencies in North Carolina have been collecting DNA evidence from arrestees since February 2011, when a law requiring them to do so went into effect.

According to the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, police agencies across North Carolina had collected 7,437 DNA samples from arrestees between 2011 and April 2013. That’s about 3 percent of the total 241,862 DNA profiles in the database.

In Mecklenburg, the Sheriff’s Office conducts the bulk of the sampling, said spokeswoman Julia Rush.

Since the law went into effect, the Sheriff’s Office has collected about 1,300 DNA samples a year. The samples are expunged if the suspect is found innocent or the charges are dropped.

When a suspect is processed into the Mecklenburg jail, deputies run fingerprints, snap a picture and rub a cotton swab against the inside of his or her cheek. The cells from that sample are sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s office in Raleigh and entered into federal and state databases.

In lauding the court’s decision, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper called DNA “the 21st-century fingerprint.”

“DNA samples from arrestees pinpoints suspects quickly, gets criminals off the streets sooner, saves tax dollars and investigative resources, and clears suspects who have been wrongly accused,” he said.

Police say the database of DNA profiles helps them solve crimes and better prosecute cases. Homicide and robbery investigators routinely collect DNA and hair samples from suspects. Matching them to cells or blood left at a crime scene provides evidence that can be powerful in persuading a jury to convict.

Clearing cold cases

And cold case investigators have used state and federal DNA databases to clear rape and murder cases that went unsolved for decades.

“We wholeheartedly support the whole premise of collecting the DNA,” said Maj. Steve Willis, who oversaw Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s implementation of the 2011 law.

But civil libertarians worry that the government is overreaching when it collects DNA evidence from people accused of a crime who have not had their day in court.

“This is not a DNA swab upon conviction; this is a DNA swab upon arrest,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “Solving crimes is a valid concern, but if you’re going to make that concern the only concern … then you can find yourself in a situation where this government power is massively expanded.”

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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