Category Archives: Law

DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show

By ANDREW POLLACK

AUG. 17, 2009

Scientists in Israel have demonstrated that it is possible to fabricate DNA evidence, undermining the credibility of what has been considered the gold standard of proof in criminal cases.

The scientists fabricated blood and saliva samples containing DNA from a person other than the donor of the blood and saliva. They also showed that if they had access to a DNA profile in a database, they could construct a sample of DNA to match that profile without obtaining any tissue from that person.

“You can just engineer a crime scene,” said Dan Frumkin, lead author of the paper, which has been published online by the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. “Any biology undergraduate could perform this.”

Dr. Frumkin is a founder of Nucleix, a company based in Tel Aviv that has developed a test to distinguish real DNA samples from fake ones that it hopes to sell to forensics laboratories.

The planting of fabricated DNA evidence at a crime scene is only one implication of the findings. A potential invasion of personal privacy is another.

Using some of the same techniques, it may be possible to scavenge anyone’s DNA from a discarded drinking cup or cigarette butt and turn it into a saliva sample that could be submitted to a genetic testing company that measures ancestry or the risk of getting various diseases. Celebrities might have to fear “genetic paparazzi,” said Gail H. Javitt of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, said the findings were worrisome.

“DNA is a lot easier to plant at a crime scene than fingerprints,” she said. “We’re creating a criminal justice system that is increasingly relying on this technology.”

John M. Butler, leader of the human identity testing project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said he was “impressed at how well they were able to fabricate the fake DNA profiles.” However, he added, “I think your average criminal wouldn’t be able to do something like that.”

The scientists fabricated DNA samples two ways. One required a real, if tiny, DNA sample, perhaps from a strand of hair or drinking cup. They amplified the tiny sample into a large quantity of DNA using a standard technique called whole genome amplification.

Of course, a drinking cup or piece of hair might itself be left at a crime scene to frame someone, but blood or saliva may be more believable.

The authors of the paper took blood from a woman and centrifuged it to remove the white cells, which contain DNA. To the remaining red cells they added DNA that had been amplified from a man’s hair.

Since red cells do not contain DNA, all of the genetic material in the blood sample was from the man. The authors sent it to a leading American forensics laboratory, which analyzed it as if it were a normal sample of a man’s blood.

The other technique relied on DNA profiles, stored in law enforcement databases as a series of numbers and letters corresponding to variations at 13 spots in a person’s genome.

From a pooled sample of many people’s DNA, the scientists cloned tiny DNA snippets representing the common variants at each spot, creating a library of such snippets. To prepare a DNA sample matching any profile, they just mixed the proper snippets together. They said that a library of 425 different DNA snippets would be enough to cover every conceivable profile.

Nucleix’s test to tell if a sample has been fabricated relies on the fact that amplified DNA — which would be used in either deception — is not methylated, meaning it lacks certain molecules that are attached to the DNA at specific points, usually to inactivate genes.

A version of this article appears in print on , on page D3 of the National edition with the headline: Scientists Show That It’s Possible to Create Fake DNA Evidence.

Fifth Amendment Right Against Self Incrimination

The right against self-incrimination is spelled out in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also extends to state and local jurisdictions. When someone exercises this right, we often say that they “plead the Fifth.”  Continue reading Fifth Amendment Right Against Self Incrimination

Discrimination Against “Discrete and Insular Minorities”

This episode of Crash Course in Government and Politics provides a general overview of the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of “discrete and insular minorities.” Discussed is the historical instances of discrimination against Asian, European, and Latino immigrants, Native Americans, non-English speakers, people with disabilities, and LGBT people. Also discussed are federal and state responses to this discrimination and some brief historical context for the legal protection of vulnerable groups.

Employment Discrimination

This episode of Crash Course in Government and Politics provides a general overview of discrimination in the workplace. The video focuses on gender discrimination and sexual harassment claims, which are handled somewhat differently by the courts than racial or religious discrimination. In gender discrimination claims the court applies an intermediate level of scrutiny which is summarized in the video. Also discussed are disparate impact claims and how these cases are handled by the courts. Employment protections are guaranteed by federal statute, rather than the Constitution, therefore, apply in both, the private and public sectors.

Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios: http://youtube.com/pbsdigitalstudios

Equal Protection Under the Law

This episode of Crash Course in Government and Politics provides a general overview of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Discussed is the concept that the law should be applied equally to everyone and what this means in terms of our civil rights. As opposed to civil liberties, or our protections from the government, civil rights differ in that they involve how some groups or individuals are permitted to treat other groups or individuals (usually minorities) under existing laws. The video explains the process the Supreme Court follows in racial, ethnic and religious discrimination cases, known as “strict scrutiny,” and examines one landmark case, Brown v Board of Education, and its role in kick-starting the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Search and Seizure

This episode of Crash Course in Government and Politics provides a general overview of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures. The police generally need to secure a warrant issued by a judge based on proof of probable cause to search your home, but this isn’t always the case – exceptions exist for exigent circumstances, such as if there is a reasonable concern that there is a crime in progress or that evidence is in danger of being destroyed.  Also discussed are the vehicle exception to a warrant and the limited protections enjoyed by  students.

Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios: http://youtube.com/pbsdigitalstudios

The Right to Bear Arms

THE SECOND AMENDMENT

By Nelson Lund and Adam Winkler

Modern debates about the Second Amendment have focused on whether it protects a private right of individuals to keep and bear arms, or a right that can be exercised only through militia organizations like the National Guard. This question, however, was not even raised until long after the Bill of Rights was adopted.

Many in the Founding generation believed that governments are prone to use soldiers to oppress the people. English history suggested that this risk could be controlled by permitting the government to raise armies (consisting of full-time paid troops) only when needed to fight foreign adversaries. For other purposes, such as responding to sudden invasions or other emergencies, the government could rely on a militia that consisted of ordinary civilians who supplied their own weapons and received some part-time, unpaid military training.

The onset of war does not always allow time to raise and train an army, and the Revolutionary War showed that militia forces could not be relied on for national defense. The Constitutional Convention therefore decided that the federal government should have almost unfettered authority to establish peacetime standing armies and to regulate the militia.

This massive shift of power from the states to the federal government generated one of the chief objections to the proposed Constitution. Anti-Federalists argued that the proposed Constitution would take from the states their principal means of defense against federal usurpation. The Federalists responded that fears of federal oppression were overblown, in part because the American people were armed and would be almost impossible to subdue through military force.

Implicit in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were two shared assumptions. First, that the proposed new Constitution gave the federal government almost total legal authority over the army and militia. Second, that the federal government should not have any authority at all to disarm the citizenry. They disagreed only about whether an armed populace could adequately deter federal oppression.

The Second Amendment conceded nothing to the Anti-Federalists’ desire to sharply curtail the military power of the federal government, which would have required substantial changes in the original Constitution. Yet the Amendment was easily accepted because of widespread agreement that the federal government should not have the power to infringe the right of the people to keep and bear arms, any more than it should have the power to abridge the freedom of speech or prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Much has changed since 1791. The traditional militia fell into desuetude, and state-based militia organizations were eventually incorporated into the federal military structure. The nation’s military establishment has become enormously more powerful than eighteenth century armies. We still hear political rhetoric about federal tyranny, but most Americans do not fear the nation’s armed forces and virtually no one thinks that an armed populace could defeat those forces in battle. Furthermore, eighteenth century civilians routinely kept at home the very same weapons they would need if called to serve in the militia, while modern soldiers are equipped with weapons that differ significantly from those generally thought appropriate for civilian uses. Civilians no longer expect to use their household weapons for militia duty, although they still keep and bear arms to defend against common criminals (as well as for hunting and other forms of recreation).

The law has also changed. While states in the Founding era regulated guns—blacks were often prohibited from possessing firearms and militia weapons were frequently registered on government rolls—gun laws today are more extensive and controversial. Another important legal development was the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Second Amendment originally applied only to the federal government, leaving the states to regulate weapons as they saw fit. Although there is substantial evidence that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to protect the right of individuals to keep and bear arms from infringement by the states, the Supreme Court rejected this interpretation in United States v. Cruikshank (1876).

Until recently, the judiciary treated the Second Amendment almost as a dead letter. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), however, the Supreme Court invalidated a federal law that forbade nearly all civilians from possessing handguns in the nation’s capital. A 5–4 majority ruled that the language and history of the Second Amendment showed that it protects a private right of individuals to have arms for their own defense, not a right of the states to maintain a militia.

The dissenters disagreed. They concluded that the Second Amendment protects a nominally individual right, though one that protects only “the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia.” They also argued that even if the Second Amendment did protect an individual right to have arms for self-defense, it should be interpreted to allow the government to ban handguns in high-crime urban areas.

Two years later, in McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), the Court struck down a similar handgun ban at the state level, again by a 5–4 vote. Four Justices relied on judicial precedents under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Justice Thomas rejected those precedents in favor of reliance on the Privileges or Immunities Clause, but all five members of the majority concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment protects against state infringement the same individual right that is protected from federal infringement by the Second Amendment.

Notwithstanding the lengthy opinions in Heller and McDonald, they technically ruled only that government may not ban the possession of handguns by civilians in their homes. Heller tentatively suggested a list of “presumptively lawful” regulations, including bans on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, bans on carrying firearms in “sensitive places” such as schools and government buildings, laws restricting the commercial sale of arms, bans on the concealed carry of firearms, and bans on weapons “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.” Many issues remain open, and the lower courts have disagreed with one another about some of them, including important questions involving restrictions on carrying weapons in public.

Freedom of the Press

This episode of Crash Course in Government and Politics provides a general overview of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. Like an individual’s right to free speech, the press has a right, and arguably an ethical responsibility, to tell the public what the government is doing. But there are some complications in doing so, such as if that information will compromise national security or wrongfully discredit an individual. When considering Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures or Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, it’s just as important as ever to understand the role of the press in informing the public as well as our role as citizens in staying informed.

Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios: http://youtube.com/pbsdigitalstudios

Freedom of Speech

This episode of Crash Course in Politics provides a general overview of your First Amendment right to free speech. Theoretically, this right allows you to critique the government without fear of retaliation. But it’s essential to remember that not ALL speech is protected equally under the First Amendment, and it only applies to the government. Therefore, just because you have a right to free speech doesn’t mean your private employer, for instance, can’t fire you for something you say (unless your work for the government and then things get a bit more complicated). Discussed are significant Supreme Court cases that have brought us to our current definition of free speech, and some of the more controversial aspects of free speech – like hate speech.

Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios: http://youtube.com/pbsdigitalstudios