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Don’t Let Emotion Trump Reason & Reality

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert (R-Reno) recently introduced a feel-good bill (AB 234) which would mandate DNA testing for anyone arrested – not convicted, mind you; arrested – on suspicion of a felony.

Not only does this proposal have serious civil rights problems – at least until we totally eliminate this “innocent until proven guilty” thing – but at the time the bill was drafted Mrs. Gansert didn’t have a plan for how to pay the estimated additional $6 million it would cost taxpayers to enact this plan. More on that later.

But even leaving the constitutional and money concerns aside, it turns out that such massive DNA testing might not even work. That’s not my opinion; that’s the opinion of someone who actually knows what the hell he’s talking about. Let me first lay out this Nevadan’s bona fides as published by Wikipedia:

“Durk Pearson was born in 1943 and grew up on a farm in Illinois. He was reading by the age of four, and decided to become a scientist at that early age.

“While a student at MIT, he was a member of the MIT Science Fiction Society and one of the writers for the early underground comic God Comics. He took a triple major at MIT in physics, biology, and psychology, with a triple minor in electrical engineering, computer science, and chemistry, graduating with a B.S. in physics in 1965. His score on the Graduate Record Exam was the highest in the nation for that year.

“Durk has patents in the area of oil shale and tar sands recovery, lasers, holography, supplement formulations. He worked on all of the manned aerospace programs from Project Gemini to the Space Shuttle and won numerous awards, including an award from the International Society for Testing and Failure Analysis for his penetrating quality control and safety analysis. He wrote much of the safety manual for the Materials and Processing Laboratory on the Shuttle.”

So Mr. Pearson is no Jeff Spicoli…or even Sean Penn for that matter. And it would behoove Leader Gansert and the rest of the Legislature to carefully consider his words on this DNA testing bill as outlined in an email he sent to me this week:

“Dear Chuck. Thanks for your fine newsletter and your consistent fight against higher taxes.

“I want to warn you about a terrible unintended consequence of testing the DNA of everyone accused of a felony. The obvious problem of the $6+ megabuck cost is just the tip of the iceberg. The greater part of the iceberg is hidden from view in the complexities of statistics.

“If a woman says that I am the father of her child, a DNA test can determine with very high accuracy whether that is the case. Note that the DNA from one person, the child, is being compared to the DNA of one other person, the purported father.

“The situation is radically different when the DNA from tens of thousands of crime scenes is being compared against a database of the DNA of tens of thousands (or many millions at the national level) of felony arrestees. The difference is the statistical risk of a false positive.

“In the one-on-one paternity case, the risk of a false positive is vanishingly low. But the risk of false positives becomes nearly 100% when tens of thousands of samples are compared against millions of samples – hundreds of billions of fishing expedition comparisons, not one attempt at a match.

“If the risk of a laboratory mistake causing a false positive is 1 in 100,000, that risk is acceptable in a paternity case. It is acceptable where the DNA of one particular suspect is compared to the DNA left at one particular crime scene. It is NOT acceptable when there are billions of promiscuous fishing attempt matches being made between large DNA databases. Many innocent people will be arrested and almost certainly convicted for felonies that they did not commit.

“Please contact the Nobel Prize winning biologist whose work made these DNA tests possible. He created the Innocence Project where one on one DNA comparisons have freed over 200 wrongly convicted people.

“The proposal to take DNA samples from all persons arrested for felonies is a horror show of false convictions waiting to happen.

“One final note: When a prosecuting attorney says that the odds are a million to one that the DNA match proves guilt, he is either grossly ignorant or lying. Those huge odds do not consider the error rate (such as mixing up samples and cross-contamination) of the testing laboratory which is never as good as one error per 100,000 samples. This means a nightmare of false positive matches when every felony arrestee’s DNA is matched against every crime scene DNA.”

It will take a lot of political courage to oppose this emotion-ladened bill. We all want to stop and catch bad guys who do bad things. But in our haste to “do something,” we must always take care not to make a bad situation worse. After all, as the saying goes, “It’s better for 10 guilty men to go free than to imprison 1 innocent man.”

Now, back to the $6+ million funding question.

You’ll recall that Minority Leader Gansert sold out the Republican Party and its electoral chances at the ballot box in 2010 by not only voting for the teachers union’s massive new room tax hike a couple weeks back, but openly advocating for it on the floor of the Assembly during the debate. One couldn’t help but wonder where her thirty pieces of silver were going to come from for this sell-out on the tax issue. Well, now it appears we know.

Buried in the fine print of that proposed new massive tax hike on alcohol (AB 277) just introduced by Republican Assemblyman John Carpenter & the Democrats is a provision for using a portion of the proceeds from that tax hike to pay for Gansert’s new DNA testing proposal.

Makes you wanna hurl, doesn’t it?