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DNA dragnet raises concern

ACLU says taking samples from 120 men, even voluntarily, may violate their rights.

Associated Press
Published June 17, 2003

MIAMI - Stepping up the hunt for a serial rapist, police in southeast Miami have offered a $10,000 reward.

They have distributed fliers throughout affected neighborhoods.

And they have stopped about 120 men, mostly Hispanic, and asked them to volunteer DNA samples to help in the investigation.

Civil rights advocates now are expressing concern that while the men have been cleared, the tactics may violate their constitutional rights.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he feared the testing may turn into a "dragnet roundup of all Hispanic males in that neighborhood."

He also said the samples should be destroyed once someone is cleared and the information should not be kept in a "database of innocent people."

"DNA is a wonderful new law enforcement investigatory tool. If it's used to clear somebody, why should it be kept at all? Once somebody is cleared by the DNA test there's no reason to hold on to it until the completion of the case," Simon said.

Miami police Chief John Timoney said state law directs investigators to maintain the information in the state DNA database in Tallahassee.

He said the voluntary testing has been administered based on tips called into investigators and whether the men fit the description of the person in composite sketches. He said every man asked to submit DNA evidence - through a cotton swab of his saliva - has been asked to sign a consent form.

"The vast majority have signed them willingly," Timoney said. "Some people have refused and have been allowed to go on their way. It's not a coercive thing, it's not been baseless, so legally we think we're fine."

DNA samples have tied the man to at least six rapes since September, with the victims ranging in age from 11 to 79. He has been described as a Hispanic, Spanish-speaking male between the ages of 30 and 45. Victims described his accent as either Mexican, Honduran or Nicaraguan.

Timoney said the county medical lab analyzes 13 characteristics in each DNA sample, called "junk DNA," which serves no useful purpose other than identification. He said the information is then sent to the state DNA database.

Suzanne Livingston, the director of forensics services for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said state law allows the state DNA database to hold both volunteer samples and those from people convicted of a crime. The database contains about 170,000 samples from offenders and more than 5,800 voluntary samples.

Livingston said the national DNA database does not accept volunteer samples so the information would not be accessible by federal law enforcement.

Simon said that his office has received about a half dozen complaints about the DNA testing in the rapist investigation but that no legal action has been considered yet.

Police conducted a similar hunt for a serial killer in Louisiana. More than 1,000 men were asked to provide mouth swabs for DNA analysis. Police said the vast majority of the samples were supplied voluntarily, though critics questioned whether it was truly voluntary, saying some men may have felt intimidated or figured it would be easier to just go along with the police.

At least one man is suing to have his DNA removed from police files.

Derrick Todd Lee was arrested in the five slayings, including that of Tampa native Carrie Lynn Yoder, after his DNA sample was collected by an investigator working on an unrelated case.

In Miami, Timoney said police have received nearly 200 phone calls from the public with potential clues to the suspect's whereabouts. He said most cases involving serial rapists or serial killers "are resolved by family, friends, neighbors or someone who knows them. . . . That's often the best tip possible."

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