Proposed DNA bank could ensnare NY graffiti artists

ALBANY, New York Thu Jan 5, 2012 6:04pm EST

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ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - Fortune-tellers beware: palm-reading could land you in New York state's criminal DNA database.

Convicted graffiti artists, subway turnstile-jumpers and anybody who writes a bad check could also end up with their genetic information permanently on file under a proposal by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Democrat on Wednesday proposed expanding the database, which was created in 1996 and collects DNA samples from people convicted of felonies and some serious misdemeanors. Cuomo wants it to include anyone convicted of a crime under the state's Penal Law.

If the measure passes, New York would have the most expansive DNA database in the country.

For years, supporters have said a larger DNA bank would help lock up criminals and exonerate innocent people.

"DNA is the state of the art, and it's a sword that cuts both ways," said Sen. Stephen Saland, a Republican who last year sponsored a bill to expand the database.

According to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, the database holds more than 445,000 DNA samples and has aided in more than 13,000 investigations.

Misdemeanors excluded from the database include "numerous crimes that are often precursors to violent offenses," Cuomo said Wednesday in his annual State of the State Address. Under current law, 46 percent of convicts are required to submit their DNA.

Critics including civil rights groups and state legislators say policymakers have been blinded by "the CSI effect," as it is called by Robert Perry, legislative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

He said people falsely believe DNA technology is infallible, due in part to its depiction in movies and television shows such as the popular CBS series "CSI," short for crime scene investigator.

"To have your sample included in the database means you're under surveillance 24/7," Perry said. "If your DNA ends up matching DNA at a crime scene, you now become subject to criminal suspicion, but there are plenty of innocent reasons for folks' DNA to turn up at a crime scene."

DNA evidence is given great weight by police investigators and prosecutors, Perry said, meaning they may often overlook traditional police work that points to a different suspect.

Lawmakers who support the expansion had little sympathy for New York's fortune-tellers and graffiti artists.

"Regardless of the nature of the crime," said Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Democrat who has pushed for years to reform the way the database is used, "sometimes you will get a hit that solves a really heinous crime."

(Editing by Daniel Trotta)

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