If you were asked to design a DNA database to help solve crimes in a democratic society, what features would you include? Legislative debate about the desirability of such a database would be a start. Whether such a DNA database would be justified by a cost-benefit analysis, with all potentially affected constituents having had a voice in the process might be another consideration. Appropriations for this hypothetical database might be conditioned on regulations intended to safeguard against abuse, to protect civil liberties, and to avoid scientific errors. And the mass collection of DNA presumably would not continue without clear evidence of its public safety benefits.
The District Attorney in Orange County, California has maintained its own DNA database since 2007. And it exhibits none of these features, as Andrea Roth’s article demonstrates. While there has been some journalistic and scholarly attention to the Orange County District Attorney’s (OCDA) database, Professor Roth’s work is the first to rely upon original field research, including court observations, public records disclosures, and interviews with all kinds of people familiar with the program, including affected defendants. The piece is remarkable and fascinating, both in its particulars, and what it can tell us about the dangers of other programs that may bear resemblances to it.
First, something on the specifics. For more than a decade, a local prosecutor’s office in California has offered those accused of low level offenses a deal: give us your DNA in exchange for a plea to lesser charges or a dismissal of charges entirely. Many defendants agree to what appears to be a standard practice in the county, and the result is that the OCDA now holds the DNA of 150,000 people—permanently. No legislature has authorized it. And it is paid for largely by private funds (including the seventy-five dollars defendants fork over for processing their own samples).
Like the nation’s linked network of databases known as “CODIS,” the OCDA database also contains DNA profiles for criminal investigation purposes. But the similarities end there. As Roth explains, the OCDA database is the largest non-legislatively created DNA database in the country. Opaque prosecutorial decision-making led it its construction, drives its growth, and helps maintain an operation “largely in the shadows.” (P. 448.)
Roth aptly describes the creation and maintenance of the OCDA database as the work of “surveillance entrepreneurs.” These local prosecutors have been allowed to engage in a vast experiment of genetic surveillance that extends beyond their typical expertise or powers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a legislature would be able to justify such a program like the OCDA DNA database: populated largely with low-risk offenders, heavily reliant on private fees, likely influenced by private interests, and amassed without any clear sense of public safety benefit.
In this way, we can draw connections between Roth’s concerns and those highlighted by other criminal justice scholars about how technological advances, private interests, and the withering of traditional accountability mechanisms are raising alarms in areas ranging from bail determinations, street policing, and criminal defense. Surveillance entrepreneurs, as we learn in this important piece, represent one more threat to democratic values in a rapidly changing justice system.