More DNA Data a Costly Dragnet

Story Date: 
Apr 1, 2015

Conservatives and civil libertarians worry about expanded DNA collection scheme.  

On April 1, 2015 Wisconsin dramatically expanded its grounds allowing law enforcement agencies to take Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) samples from people.  Those arrested for violent felonies once probable cause is established, or convicted of a misdemeanor crime committed after April 1, will have to submit a DNA sample.   Previously, Wisconsin took approximately 12,000 DNA samples from persons convicted of certain felonies.  Under the new scheme it is estimated there will be 25,000 additional DNA samples taken for violent felonies and 40,000 additional samples taken after misdemeanor convictions.  

The ACLU acknowledges that there are legitimate purposes for forensic DNA.  Numerous prisoners have been exonerated due to the testing of DNA from crime scenes years after they were falsely convicted.  Unfortunately, DNA evidence is not collected, or is mishandled, in too many cases.  DNA collection upon arrest schemes that rely on ever increasing numbers of profiles are little more than dragnets that can’t remedy mistakes at the crime scene.   The rationale for these dragnets allows for no limits – collection of DNA samples from newborns seems Orwellian, but it is makes sense to some.  It’s no wonder conservatives as well as civil libertarians have problems with big brother.  Delegates to the 2014 Wisconsin Republican convention adopted a resolution calling for the repeal of DNA collection upon arrest.  Republican legislators managed to scale back the program a little, but were unable to eliminate it.

As the ACLU has argued for years, DNA collection upon arrest increases the number of DNA profiles in state and federal databanks without adequate safeguards against including profiles from innocent people.  The idea that local authorities and the state Department of Justice will not get their signals crossed is ludicrous – it is only a question of how many mistakes will be made.  And, expungement of profiles of innocents or the misidentified after uploading is easier said than done.  

The ACLU of Wisconsin will be monitoring the implementation of this new DNA collection regime.  Ask yourself:

  • Are Wisconsin’s 72 counties ready to take samples and submit them immediately to the State Crime Laboratory without logistic and financial problems? 
  • Is the Department of Justice ready to implement the program with a high degree of quality assurance, especially if out-of-state laboratories are used to extract the DNA and create profiles?
  • Will the funding mechanism for the expansion, surcharges on convicted DNA donors, collect nearly enough money to pay the state’s costs, much less the costs counties will incur?   

All in all, the new DNA scheme is likely, after some initial matches,  to prove to be an expensive scheme that diverts time, energy and resources from other proven crime fighting techniques.   Given its roughshod treatment of innocent people, it is no wonder that opposition to it comes from across the political spectrum.  Hopefully, the Legislature will revisit DNA collection upon arrest before it is irreversible. 


"Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

Louis D. Brandeis, Dissenting, Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).