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Cigarette Butts and Used Kleenex Become a Crime-Solving DNA Tool

Posted Apr 3, 2008 8:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Police are surreptitiously collecting suspects’ DNA left behind on items such as coffee cups, tissues, straws, eating utensils and cigarette butts.

In some cases the DNA helps solve crimes, and in others they eliminate suspects from suspicion, the New York Times reports. One suspect, Rolando Gallego, was charged with his aunt’s murder after police tested DNA on a tossed cigarette butt and found it matched DNA at the crime scene, the story says. Another, Altemio Sanchez, confessed to killing three women after police tested DNA on a glass he used at a restaurant.

Gallegos’ lawyer is seeking to toss the evidence.

Many courts have upheld surreptitious DNA techniques, absent special circumstances. The Massachusetts Court of Appeals allowed police to collect DNA from spittle left behind on the street by a suspected rapist. And the Washington Supreme Court permitted police posing as plaintiffs lawyers to use DNA on a fake letter sent to a suspect.

An Iowa court, on the other hand, rejected DNA from a water bottle that police secretly swapped with another when the suspect went to the restroom. The court said the suspect had not abandoned the water bottle and police were not entitled to it. And the North Carolina Court of Appeals said police were not entitled to evidence on a cigarette butt that was on the patio of a suspect’s home, where he had an expectation of privacy.

Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at University of California, told the Times many people don’t realize how easy it is for police to collect DNA. “Police can take a DNA sample from anyone, anytime, for any reason without raising oversight by any court,” she said.

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