DNA Nation

As testing becomes cheaper, DNA is seeing wider use

As testing becomes cheaper, DNA is seeing wider use

In 2008, Anoka County officers knocked on the door of Mai Xiong Vang's Blaine home. Vang doesn't speak English, so at first she couldn't understand what the document they were showing her meant. One of her children translated for her: The paper was a warrant, signed by a judge. The county wanted a sample of Vang's DNA. It also wanted samples from her children.

Vang was unemployed and collecting social security. Since 1992, she had been receiving public assistance in the form of food stamps and health care for herself and her children. In 2002, she moved with her children into an apartment in Blaine. She told her case officer at the county Financial Service Center that she was renting from her uncle, Shoua Vang, paying $1,200 a month in rent.

But her case officer was suspicious, and referred Vang's file to fraud investigators. It wasn't hard to prove Vang was lying. She wasn't just a renter—she and two other people had bought the house for $287,500.

And though Vang had told the case officer she was a single mother and she didn't know who the father of her children was, that wasn't true either. Prosecutors amassed a stack of evidence showing that her supposed uncle acted a lot like a father to her children. He was even listed as the father on the birth certificates for three of them.

It was compelling evidence, but it wasn't conclusive. Unfortunately for Vang, she was living in the only place in America where prosecutors can get a warrant for a DNA sample in welfare fraud cases. Investigators swabbed the inside of her cheek, as well as those of her children, Gao Ci Ca and Dao, 15 and 17.

The tests confirmed Vang's "uncle" was really the father of her children. She was found guilty of felony fraud. Over six years, she had collected just over $42,000 in food stamps, health benefits, and other assistance to which she wasn't entitled.

In the decades since DNA testing was first introduced, Americans have become accustomed to the idea that one of our most private assets, the protein that codes our individual identity, can be tested in the prosecution of crimes like rape and murder. But as testing becomes cheaper, more accurate, and less physically invasive, DNA is seeing wider use. By testing suspected welfare cheats, Anoka County put itself at the forefront of a trend that worries civil liberties advocates.

"There's no question that it's alarming," says Chuck Samuelson, the director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. "It's a significant expansion of government intrusion into an area that most people still think of as private. What's especially troubling is that in this case we're talking about a program that by its definition targets the poorest and most vulnerable population."

Wider DNA testing doesn't just violate some abstract sense of our privacy, says Christine Funk, a public defender who trains other lawyers on DNA. "It has very practical consequences. It's not just more testing. It's an expansion of how the records are used."

State law requires authorities to take DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony. But it's not just convicted felons forced to submit their DNA. In 2005, the legislature passed a bill requiring that even suspects accused of simple robbery had to submit their DNA, even before their trial. The law applies to juveniles as well.

If found innocent, the suspect's DNA record is supposed to be destroyed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The Bureau will also destroy the record if charges in the case are dismissed—but only if you ask them.

The state database, in turn, is shared with the FBI, which maintains the Combined DNA Index System, a national registry with millions of entries. Once you're in the system, law enforcement around the country can check DNA evidence from unsolved crimes against your genetic signature.

Anoka County prosecutors say their program of testing welfare cheats isn't Orwellian. In the five years since the county quietly started using DNA in these cases, authorities have taken samples in fewer than a dozen cases.

Furthermore, says Bryan Lindberg, who heads the Property Crimes Division at the County Attorney's office, no one tested so far has been found innocent.

"In every case where we've used it, the testing has confirmed paternity," Lindberg says.

And while the convicted felons' DNA is added to the database, the samples taken from children in welfare fraud cases are discarded after they've been used to convict their parents.

"I'm not troubled by the privacy concerns," says Lorraine Gabbert, an investigator with the Anoka County Attorney's office who has handled most of the DNA-related assistance fraud cases. "One of the conditions of receiving public assistance is that you promise to tell the truth about what you know about who the father of your children is."

Lindberg isn't impressed by privacy concerns in these cases either. "These people are basically stealing money from taxpayers," he says. "They're felons."

But while it's hard to muster much sympathy for Vang or the handful of other welfare cheats caught through DNA testing in Anoka County, Funk says that's not the point.

"The thing about these laws is that it's never the nice innocent suspect who's a test case," Funk says. "It's always some terrible criminal, where no judge in the country is going to stick his neck out to protect the privacy of such a creep. But you still have to ask: Where does it end?"