Legal Aid Society


LAS Sues to End City’s Illegal DNA Collection and Storage Practices

The Legal Aid Society filed a class action lawsuit against the City of New York as well as the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) challenging the illegal, secret seizure and storage of DNA material from New Yorkers – including children – whom the police suspected of committing a crime without obtaining a warrant or court order, as reported by The New York Times.

This controversial practice has created a rogue DNA database maintained by the City that – unlike federal and state DNA databases – lacks any legislative authorization, empowering the City to treat thousands of New Yorkers as permanent, perpetual criminal suspects.

The lawsuit – brought on behalf of two Legal Aid clients who, through interactions with NYPD detectives, had their DNA secretly collected without their knowledge or consent and placed in an illegal, unregulated database run by OCME called the “Suspect Index” – charges that the NYPD’s established practice of unlawfully collecting, analyzing, and indexing the DNA of New Yorkers constitutes an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The video below shows an NYPD officer surreptitiously collecting a New Yorker’s DNA from a water bottle at a local precinct.

Once filed in the database, DNA profiles are then put in a perpetual “genetic lineup” and compared to DNA evidence taken from practically any past or future investigation – all without obtaining a warrant or court order, and in blatant contradiction of New York State law, which prohibits the indexing of a person’s DNA unless they have been convicted of a crime.

By illegally seizing DNA from thousands of New Yorkers, the NYPD’s mass DNA collection efforts support the use of its new and invasive investigatory technique that can be used to investigate not only individual suspects, but their family members as well.

The video below shows an NYPD officer collecting a client’s DNA from a cigarette butt at a Bronx precinct.

Due to the history of institutional racism in arrest rates in New York City, Black and Latinx people are the vast majority of arrestees subject to the City’s DNA indexing practice, and their families can be ensnared in future investigations. The City’s secret DNA collection practice also targets children as young as 11, who can never be included in a DNA database authorized under state law, and even includes DNA from children that was secretly taken after parents refused to consent to giving the DNA.

“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, Supervising Attorney in the Special Litigation Unit of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society.

“This database operates virtually unchecked, and despite promises from the City to reduce its size, the database has continued to grow at the expense of communities of color,” he continued. “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.”