The FBI Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, consists of local, state, and national databases of DNA from convicted offenders, missing people, and unsolved crime scenes. One part of CODIS, the National DNA Index System, or NDIS, contains the DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local forensic labs. Each of the fifty states have statutory provisions establishing a DNA databank and allowing for the collection of DNA from those who are convicted of certain types of crimes. One of its main uses has been to solve “cold cases” where police have no leads on the perpetrator or the crime may have occurred decades earlier.
CODIS is divided into two categories: the “offender” index, comprised of people who have been arrested or convicted of crimes, and the “forensic” index, comprised of DNA profiles taken from crime scenes of unsolved crimes. One recurring issue among states is whether on not to include arrestees as is done with all federal offenders. Currently, over 20 states upload profiles of arrestees although many in the legal community wonder if the practice is Constitutional or not.
Innocence Projects can utilize the CODIS database to electronically compare DNA profiles found at crime scenes to the list of convicted offenders in CODIS, with the hopes of finding the actual perpetrator of the crime and proving our clients’ innocence. Use of CODIS has often revealed that the real perpetrator had committed other crimes while a wrongfully convicted person was incarcerated. The difficulty is that Innocence Projects do not have access to CODIS, and the government must consent to the CODIS search. Law enforcement and prosecutors are often resistant to giving consent.
With cooperation from the government, however, CODIS can be a very significant tool in exonerating the innocent by leading to the true perpetrator of the crime. A further concern is that police and prosecutors will often not report or investigate when an arrestee profile is entered and shows up as a match to a crime where someone else has already been convicted – regardless of how incriminating the match is. A corresponding issue is whether the state has to inform the inmate that there has been a match in their case.
A continuing issue is the use of partial DNA matches, also known as “familial searching.” Family members share at least half of their DNA. If a full match cannot be made to a suspect, police may then become interested in investigating a relative as the perpetrator. Many law enforcement support this practice and point its use in solving crime. However, many worry that this practice may implicate an innocent family member may be wrongfully accused as a suspect in a crime. Also, the practice has the danger of expanding the database to those who should not be included. Only offenders should targeted for investigation by using the CODIS database. Yet, the use of familial searching means that the database can target their relatives for investigation as well. Currently, there is much debate as to whether this practice should be allowed and, if so, who should determine the policies regarding its use.