The only aspect of Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s flirtation with the notion of sampling and storing the DNA of suspects to serious crimes is its undue caution. Why stop there, with the merely apprehended? Why not cast that genetic dragnet across the entire country, capturing the guilty and innocent, alike?
Somehow, you suspect, that’s an itch he’s just dying to scratch.
“I know there’s always privacy considerations,” he tells the Globe and Mail this week, though he says they are in the background. “It has to balanced in the bigger picture. But I think that, you know, the timing of the taking of DNA is something that could very well emerge in the future as another issue of importance.”
It’s a crying shame, he seems to be saying, that “right now we’re limited to taking it (DNA) on conviction. It could be expanded to take on arrest, like a fingerprint. . .I maintain that, you know, a genetic fingerprint is no different and could be used in my view as an investigative tool.”
Oh really, Mr. Minister?
Here’s what my fingerprints, on file with the RCMP, can tell the cops: My name and address. With this information, they can find me without too much trouble in the time it takes me to plunder my bank account en route to the car dealership.
On the other hand, according to a source in the Guardian not long ago, here’s what my DNA can tell them: The colour of my hair and eyes, my gender, whether or not I am an insomniac, how long I’m likely to live, whether or not I have a propensity towards obesity, the degree to which I am at risk of developing certain types of cancer, Huntington’s Chorea and Parkinson’s disease.
If I am an unwilling guest at one of Canada’s finer penal institutions, then I should properly expect to lose any right to privacy I might have imagined for myself. But if I have not been convicted of any crime – only arrested on suspicion of having committed an offence – what gives the state the prerogative to profile me in such exquisite detail and keep a record of this information until the sun goes nova?
As William Trudell of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence told the Globe, “It’s really sort of cataloguing the innocent. Until someone is found guilty, the presumption of innocence really has to mean something.”
In fact, Mr. MacKay is coming somewhat late to Big Brother’s most recent soiree. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of law enforcement officials in 28 states to collect DNA from suspects who have not yet been charged of serious crimes. An item in thinkprogress.org states that “the 5-4 ruling overrules a state court determination that Maryland’s DNA collection law permits unconstitutionally invasive searches. . .Justice Antonin Scalia warns in a dissent joined by three of the court’s more liberal justices that the court’s reasoning would apply equally to someone accused of any crime or violation at all: ‘Make no mistake about it. As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.’”
The implications have alarmed more than one American jurist. In a commentary, published by the Chicago Tribune last month, former Las Vegas district court judge Jackie Glass observed, “The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures and requires warrants to be issued based on probable cause. This Maryland v. King decision will allow for warrantless searches to occur based on failed logic. Justice Kennedy and his majority owed American citizens a better justification. Using DNA for standard identification is unnecessary and makes no sense.”
Still, on one level, it makes perfect sense.
In the absence of true leadership, in the presence of failed social policy, politicians are always on the prowl for the enemy within. Now, with a handy DNA test, indiscriminately administered, they can prove that the enemy is us – guilty by association with the code written into our genes.