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WASHINGTON--Beginning today, the nation's police will be able to use a national computer system to match DNA evidence from convicted felons with that collected in unsolved crimes.

Jan S. Bashinski, the primary developer of California's DNA database, which began operating in 1992, said the FBI's new crime-fighting tool could reduce the number of sex crimes and make it harder for criminals to evade authorities by crossing state lines.
"It's going to allow DNA to achieve its full potential," said Dwight Adams, chief of the FBI Laboratory's scientific analysis section.

Currently the FBI computer holds DNA profiles of 250,000 convicted felons and genetic evidence recovered from the scenes of 4,600 unsolved cases. The new federal system still has some wrinkles to iron out--eight states have not started to collect samples from their felons, for example--and a criminal defense lawyers' association lamented that the process creates "a big brother atmosphere." But a pilot effort involving California and seven other states has solved about 200 cases since last December, indicating that the nationwide program has great promise, experts said.

DNA, a person's genetic fingerprint, is left at crime scenes in the form of blood, hair, skin cells, semen or other matter. DNA databases work by matching the DNA profile collected from crime sites and victims to DNA samples taken from felons, crime suspects and the scenes of other unsolved crimes. The states have taken samples from another 350,000 convicted felons but have not yet analyzed and entered them in the FBI's computer database, reflecting what Adams called a backlog problem. While all 50 states have enacted laws authorizing officials to take blood samples of some convicted felons to obtain their DNA profiles, Maine, Vermont, Mississippi, Wyoming, Alabama, Ohio, New Mexico and Utah have not begun collecting the samples, Adams said.

The federal government has not authorized the collection of DNA samples from federal felons. Adams said the wording of the 1994 DNA Identification Act falls short of creating such authority, and Congress has not acted on measures proposed to correct that. With Congress on the verge of adjournment, such action is unlikely before next year, he added. With most crimes investigated and prosecuted by state and local authorities, however, the effect of adding federal felons to the sampling would be limited. If the federal crimes covered by the DNA sampling authorization were limited to violent and sexual offenses, the additional DNA profiles would number "a few thousand," Adams estimated.

Jack King, spokesman for the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, raised privacy concerns about the new system. "Without a reasonable, articulable suspicion, a person's privacy should not be invaded by taking a DNA sample. It creates a kind of big brother atmosphere," said King, whose group has been critical of the FBI's DNA-collection efforts.

While some states collect DNA samples from all felons, including white-collar violators, California collects DNA only from persons convicted of sexual offenses or violent crimes, according to Bashinski, chief of forensic services for the California Department of Justice in Sacramento. The California law also restricts the state's use of DNA information.

"We must maintain confidentiality of the information and only use it for law enforcement purposes," Bashinski said. "It cannot be used for medical testing or other reasons." The California database, one of the nation's leading systems, has collected 100,000 samples from the blood and saliva of convicted sex offenders and persons convicted of such violent crimes as murder, assault and kidnapping.

More than 40,000 California samples have been analyzed, cataloged and forwarded to the FBI, leaving a backlog of about 60,000, according to department spokesman Mike Van Winkle. "About 14,000 [samples] are collected each year, but thanks to automation we now are analyzing 20,000 to 30,000 a year, so we're gaining on the backlog," Van Winkle said. Samples once were taken from state inmates as they were released into their communities. "But some of these guys had served many years in prison, so we decided why wait. We might solve crimes while they were still serving time, so we started obtaining the samples as they entered," Van Winkle added.

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