New Jersey law enforcement has reportedly on at least one occasion accessed a bank of blood samples drawn from newborns to conduct DNA tracing to charge a father with a crime. The law that governs the program was designed to test infants for 60 health disorders within 48 hours of birth, not to serve law enforcement.
“Parents, when this happens, trust the state to protect this sensitive information and not make it easily available to law enforcement agencies or other agencies,” Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, told The New Jersey Monitor.
These dried blood tests can be kept for up to 23 years. In the one case that has been publicly revealed, the blood samples were nine years old. An Open Public Records Acts request filed by the Office of the Public Defender and The New Jersey Monitor sought a list of subpoenas on the state-run lab. That request was denied in court and the state has declined to release information on the numbers of subpoenas served against the state’s Newborn Screening Laboratory.
It is easy to see why these blood samples represent a tempting target for law enforcement. The DNA trace in the nine-year-old case enabled a probable cause warrant for the father’s DNA, who was later charged with sexual assault.
This story illustrates the tension in American surveillance. It is a certainty that a large enough body of bulk information – whether DNA or digital – will reveal suspects of dastardly crimes. But it can only do so at the cost of everyone else’s privacy and Fourth Amendment rights. The future privacy of these babies is also being compromised. The state database will give the government knowledge of these babies’ congenital diseases and conditions, as well as a storehouse of their own profiles as they grow up.
Similar issues can be found in most every state. The Legal Aid Society recently filed a federal lawsuit against the New York Police Department for lifting drinks and cigarettes used by suspects to add their DNA profile to an immense and secret DNA database.
The unwillingness of the state to provide further information on its uses of newborn screening data is reason enough for legislators in Trenton to use their authority to bring the scale and scope of this program to light.