Appeals court right to revive DNA suit

When he was an Orange County supervisor in 2015, Todd Spitzer harshly criticized then-DA Tony Rackauckas for his office’s handling of DNA evidence. He questioned whether it’s a conflict of interest for the same office that is responsible for charging people with crimes to be responsible for handling and controlling DNA evidence.

Spitzer was on to something important. DNA evidence is a crucial element in the criminal-justice system — something that can help confirm the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a crime. But a variety of evidence-related scandals in the DA’s office shows that DNA databases need to be subject to diligent oversight because they raise serious issues related to citizens’ right to privacy and due process.

Following his election as district attorney, Spitzer has taken a different tack. He has defended the department’s DNA program. As retired UCI criminology professor William C. Thompson noted on these pages, Orange County is the only county in the country that runs its own DNA database “specifically for people charged with misdemeanors.”

In rebuttal, Spitzer argued that the program is legal and effective — and that “participation in this program is completely voluntary … and involves multiple layers of safeguards.” The program’s legality, effectiveness and oversight is up for debate, but Spitzer is being disingenuous in suggesting that it is “in no way coercive.” Thompson, who filed a lawsuit challenging the program, argues that people accused of crimes as minuscule as walking a dog off its leash only “volunteered” to provide their DNA “under threat of criminal charges, often without consulting a lawyer.”

Fortunately, a state appeals court this month has allowed the case to move forward. The ruling raised serious constitutional concerns.

“A vaguely worded DNA waiver can potentially conceal from alleged misdemeanants the persons having access to their DNA and/or the different purposes for which their DNA might be used,” wrote Fourth Appellate District Justice Eileen Moore. She expressed concerns about DNA waivers’ “far-ranging privacy implications.” We’re disappointed that Spitzer apparently has abandoned his previously well-articulated concerns now that he is in charge.

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