Why the Dakota County Sheriff's Office will stop collecting DNA samples from suspects

They still think it's an important crime-fighting tool, but will halt the practice.
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The Dakota County Sheriff's Office will stop collecting DNA samples from suspects of serious crimes.

The decision comes as the result of a settlement the sheriff's office reached with the ACLU of Minnesota. The group sued the sheriff's office in May, arguing its practice of taking DNA samples from suspects – even if they've only been accused, not convicted – amounts to an unreasonable search.

Last week, the ACLU said it had reached a settlement, and on Monday the sheriff's office and county attorney's office put out their own statement regarding what that entails.

But bottom line: they won't be collecting DNA samples anymore.

The ACLU of Minnesota celebrated this as a victory, writing in part: " Law enforcement officials do not get to take your property based on mere suspicion. They also do not get to take your DNA based solely on suspicion. They do not get to ignore people’s Constitutional rights just to collect information that they think might help them solve crimes sometime in the future."

Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom are less thrilled, and are still portraying DNA collection as a valuable crime-fighting tool.

But one that the county isn't going to continue paying to defend in court, Leslie and Backstrom said.

The tricky gray area of DNA collection

The sheriff's office in 2015 started taking a DNA sample from all adult and juvenile suspects who'd been charged with a violent crime – a practice that temporarily was halted as a case worked its way through the courts, but resumed in January of 2017, the Pioneer Press reported.

But is it legal, or not? Nobody has a clear answer.

In 2005, Minnesota enacted a statute (click here to read it) that allowed law enforcement to take DNA samples from suspects who haven't been convicted of a crime. But a year later, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that was a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment.

So law enforcement never really got it going.

But in 2015, the Dakota County Sheriff's Office started collecting DNA, pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a Maryland case that ruled the practice constitutional. That ruling validated the legality of Minnesota's statute, the county argued at the time.

But this spring the ACLU brought its lawsuit, and with this settlement the DNA collection – once again – will stop.

Leslie and Backstrom, in Monday's statement, say the settlement "should not be considered in anyway as diminishing the importance of using DNA as a method to identify those who have been charged with violent criminal offenses or an acknowledgement that the law is unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful."

Instead, since the DNA collection rules are part of state law, it should fall on state lawmakers to settle its legality, using state funds to pay for those costs.

"The settlement was reached in recognition of the fact that the statute in question has statewide impact and that any potential costs associated with defending the law should be the responsibility of the state of Minnesota and not solely the responsibility of the citizens of Dakota County," their statement reads. 

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