NYPD accused of illegally obtaining, storing DNA samples of nearly 32,000 people
According to a federal lawsuit, the genetic material is kept in a "suspect index".
A federal lawsuit accuses the New York Police Department of illegally taking DNA samples without obtaining warrants and storing the genetic material in an illegal and unregulated database.
The database turns thousands of people, primarily Black and Latino people, into “permanent criminal suspects,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan.
One of the nearly 32,000 individuals who had DNA taken without her knowledge is Plaintiff Shakira Leslie, the lawsuit says.
Leslie was 23 in 2019 and had left a cousin’s birthday party when police pulled over the car she was riding in for a traffic violation, the lawsuit says.
At the precinct, officers deprived Leslie of food and water for more than 12 hours.
Leslie was released and the charges against her were dropped, but not before the NYPD collected her drinking cup and took her DNA, according to the lawsuit, which was filed by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of Leslie and a second plaintiff.
“Ms. Leslie never offered and was never asked for her consent to have her DNA taken. And the NYPD did not obtain a warrant or court order before secretly taking her DNA and sending the sample to OCME to perform DNA testing,” the lawsuit said, arguing that the DNA collection and analysis violate the plaintiffs’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
How is DNA collected?
According to the lawsuit, police often offer victims being questioned about a crime a beverage, a cigarette, or chewing gum and then gather DNA from the items.
The suit claims the genetic material is stored and cataloged in a “suspect index” that puts people’s DNA profiles through “a genetic lineup that compares the profiles against all past and future crime scene DNA evidence — all without obtaining a warrant or court order to conduct these DNA searches.”
“Thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom are Black and brown, and many of whom have never been convicted of any crime, are illegally in the City’s rogue DNA database, which treats people as suspects in every crime involving DNA,” said Phil Desgranges, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “We simply cannot trust the NYPD to police itself, and we look forward to judicial review of these destructive practices to bring our clients the justice they deserve.”
The New York City Law Department told ABC News it would review the lawsuit.
Sgt. Edward Riley, New York Police Department Spokesperson, said NYPD would also consider the case, but maintained that DNA collection is one of the finest practices in law enforcement.
“Behind every time the NYPD collects DNA from a suspect in a criminal investigation, there is a crime victim who is suffering and seeking justice. The driving motivation for the NYPD to collect DNA is to legally identify the correct perpetrator, build the strongest case possible for investigators and our partners in the various prosecutor’s offices, and bring closure to victims and their families,” Riley said in a statement provided to ABC News.
“The local DNA database complies with all applicable laws and is managed and used in accordance with the highest scientific standards set by independent accrediting bodies that have regularly reapproved the existence of the database,” the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said in a statement.
According to the case filed by the Legal Aid Society, the database breaches state regulations that limit DNA indexing and "hoard the DNA of arrestees and suspects" without control, typically at the expense of persons of color.
“Black and Latinx people make up the vast majority of arrestees who are subject to the City’s DNA taking and indexing practice,” the lawsuit said.
“Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief to end the City’s practice of targeting thousands of individuals, many of whom have never been convicted of a crime, to take their DNA and turn them into permanent suspects.”