Despite some controversies, DNA evidence has proved to be an effective law-enforcement tool, both for catching the guilty and exonerating the innocent, especially in rape cases. But the state’s zeal to collect and test valuable DNA evidence has also created some abuses that Ohio officials should fix now.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the state’s nearly 800 law-enforcement agencies deserve credit for reducing the unconscionable backlog of untested rape kits. Some of them could solve cases that are years, even decades, old.
A law passed by the General Assembly that took effect in 2011 requires law-enforcement agencies to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony — even if he or she is later cleared or acquitted. Before that, police needed a search warrant to collect a sample, or DNA was collected, typically by a cheek swab, once a person was convicted of a felony. The new law has greatly expanded Ohio’s DNA database, which now includes nearly 500,000 samples.
Even so, treating a person who has been charged with a crime in the same way as one who has been convicted runs counter to America’s best legal traditions. A person cleared of a crime should have no fewer privacy rights than someone who has never been charged.
Legally, there is no distinction. Yet Ohio’s new law prohibits people who have been charged but not convicted from withholding their DNA from the state’s database — at least not without getting a court order.
In an interview with The Blade’s editorial board last week, Mr. DeWine acknowledged the problem. “When you have someone who’s found not guilty, or the case is dismissed, we ought to figure out how to deal with that,” he said.
Dealing with the problem should not be difficult. Legislators ought to amend the law to enable people who have been charged with but not convicted of a felony to withhold their DNA from the database with a simple request. Or the law could require DNA samples only from convicted criminals.
Ohio’s DNA initiatives have been largely successful. At Mr. DeWine’s urging, roughly 2,300 untested rape kits have been sent to a state crime laboratory for testing. A four-person unit in Mr. DeWine’s office, established to handle backlogged kits, has been processing about 100 untested kits a month.
Mr. DeWine’s office has reduced wait times for DNA tests, from an average of 125 days to 20 days. DNA testing has resulted in hundreds of leads; in other cases, it has cleared the wrongly accused.
These successes are worth celebrating. But as Ohio moves forward with DNA testing, it must preserve the nation’s most cherished legal traditions, by treating those cleared of a crime in the same manner as those who haven’t been charged.