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Court Upholds Collection of Blood Samples for DNA Data Bank

A federal court has affirmed a Virginia policy of collecting DNA samples from incarcerated felons, saving the practice does not violate the inmates' right to privacy or constitute unreasonable search of seizure. The ruling is believed to be the first in the nation in a case challenging a state's mandatory collection of DNA samples.

Virginia last summer began taking blood samples from all inmates convicted of felonies, intended to establish a DNA criminal data bank, similar to the FBI's fingerprint files. At least 10 other states have similar laws, but most call for collection of DNA samples only from certain categories of offenders, mainly sex offenders.

U.S. District Judge James C. Turk ruled March 4 that the state has a "special law enforcement need" for the DNA samples, citing high recidivism rates among felons. (The higher the recidivism rate, the more likely DNA taken from a blood stain or other evidence at a crime scene would turn up a "match" from a DNA data bank of former prison inmates.) A computerized data bank with DNA profiles of offenders could deter crimes or help in the capture of suspects, Judge Turk said.

The judge ruled that the DNA testing does not violate inmate's privacy-because the intrusion of taking a blood sample is a minor one, and because the state law bars use of the samples for anything other than determining identification characteristics. "Prisoners, incident to their status as convicted felons, relinquish some expectation of privacy;" he wrote. "For example, prisoners are required to submit to searches of their cellblocks, body-cavity searches and health tests."

Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry praised the ruling, saying, "This is good news for law enforcement in Virginia. DNA is probably the most important crime-fighting tool since fingerprints." But Harold Kent, a University of Virginia professor of law who helped file the lawsuit on behalf of inmates, said the ruling "almost certainly" will be appealed.

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