On the feasibility and legality of prosecuting drug users based on DNA collection.

I was recently walking by a blood donation truck and noticed the used-needle disposal bin next to it, which called to mind a used-needle disposal bin in a restroom I visited at the Minneapolis airport earlier this year. (Presumably, the airport restroom bin is meant to serve needle users with a different goal than the donation group.) This in turn called to mind the following question:

Would it be (1) feasible and (2) conceivably legal (in the past, present or near future, in the US or anywhere else) for law enforcement agencies to use these disposed needles to prosecute criminals? For example:

If Joe Accusedfelon was suspected of having used heroin and then disposed of the needle in a public bin, could a law enforcement agency (1) feasibly or (2) legally (a) find the needle and (b) draw evidence linking the heroin to Mr. Accusedfelon?

If airport workers volunteered their DNA samples as a condition of employment, could the airport check fingerprints or blood samples from the needle bin against its database?

(No legislative campaigning, please, and no discussion of drug use outside of the context of obtaining evidence and prosecuting crimes.)

I may be missing something here, but I can’t see why there would be any legal barrier to law enforcement personnel looking through trash for evidence, or using what they found there.

I have a feeling my attorney would enjoy defending me in a case where the only evidence was DNA found in a public area.

I suppose they could - if there is a jurisdiction somewhere that prosecutes people for using heroin, rather than possessing it.

I think that is a key point. There aren’t any laws to prosecute past drug use especially after it is out of the user’s system.

Besides that, there are all kinds of problems with using needles to prosecute past drugs users. It would be difficult to prove that the person actually used drugs beyond a reasonable doubt. Drug traces on the needle and in the syringe probably wouldn’t be enough.

But the OP simply talks of “linking the heroin to Mr. Accusedfelon”. The needle might be just one of several bits of evidence.

In Arizona as of 2002, the body is considered a container, such that being intoxicated is made legally equivalent to being in possession. That is, if you’re high, you possess drugs because the drugs are in your body, which is considered equivalent to a dime bag. This applies to all drugs, including alcohol, and its main goal (according to Tucson law enforcement authorities) is to discourage underage U. of Arizona students from going to Mexico and coming back drunk.

I don’t have a cite for this, but I myself know it’s true because I’ve been prosecuted under that law. (The charges were dropped, for those keeping score.) I hereby redirect the OP such that it is assumed that in the particular jurisdiction it’s a crime to use drugs.

I’m talking about drug traces plus DNA evidence left on the needle by the individual. IANAL, but I would think that it would be easy enough to show that the only way certain kinds of DNA evidence can get in there is by the individual using a needle and throwing it in the bin.

And BTW, I’m not necessarily talking about using the needle as evidence to convict. Do you think that a needle that is demonstrably covered by the defendant’s fingerprints/skin/blood could reliably lead to a warrant allowing a drug test of the defendant in any courtroom?

Thank you; you are quite correct in clarifying my intentions. And that brings up another question–how much of a factor could said needle be in an arraignment/conviction/sentencing etc.?

(Bold italics courtesy of moi)

I believe you are assuming facts not in evidence. It would be easy enough to argue that the DNA/blood/etc could be introduced via other means.

Like what? I don’t know much about DNA (hence why I’m asking the question in the first place…) but I would think that there would be some “cutoff point” (minimum amount of sample) after which you could reliably deduce that the sample must’ve come from the body of the drug user or from other needles in the bin. Am I wrong?

Well, fingerprints do not tell when the item was touched, only that it was. Likewise, my DNA could possibly be introduced by someone who wishes to do me harm. I don’t think this has to be likely, but I am sure my defense attorney would tell the jurors how easily it could be done.

In addition, if you took syringes and needles and collected DNA you need a reference sample to match with. Are you going to collect a sample from me? Well, I will not voluntarily give you a sample, so you need evidence in order to get a warrant. If you have no suspects, how do you propose to find the user of the syringe?

Yet your DNA found on a needle does tend to link you to it. Other explanations are possible, sure, but your attorney would certainly face a challenge.

I see nothing in the OP that precludes the possibility of additional evidence.

A used needle is a potential source of HIV infection, and some states have recently enacted measures which make it easier for any person to acquire moderate amounts of new hypodermic needles, and apparently also making it more convenient to dispose of the used ones. The intention isn’t to facilitate heroin addictions. An addict will use any needle available, and it’s in the interests of the state to prevent those persons from also contracting or spreading HIV at the same time. So the state makes it possible to buy clean needles, and provides sharps containers, as a public health measure more than a means of criminal investigation.

Prosecuting people on the basis of evidence collected either at a drug store where needles were purchased, or from a sharps container where they were disposed would only lead to fewer people taking advantage of these services, nullifying the intended benefit. I’m sure it’s occurred to someone in law enforcement, but they just don’t take precedent over HIV.

As a purely practical matter, the logistics of trying to build a genetic database from used needles would make this pretty much impossible. It would be enormously expensive and time-consuming to isolate and sequence DNA from trace amounts of blood from thousands of needles, while maintaining the high standards required for data that could be used as evidence. It’s just not worth it to prosecute a few more drug users.

I do not think that a tendency to link someone to a crime is enough to prosecute. Maybe a for-real lawyer could expand on that. Reasonable doubt?
On preview, yeah, what Smeghead said.

I’d agree - by itself it is unlikely to be. But that wasn’t how I read the OP.

The question there was “Would it be (1) feasible and (2) conceivably legal … for law enforcement agencies to use these disposed needles to prosecute criminals?”

In this context, I interpret “to prosecute” to mean “as evidence during prosecution of” rather than “as sole evidence sufficient to convict”.

I think I neglected to mention this in the OP (except in the airport worker example), but when it first played out in my head the scenario was that the DNA sample was already in some database, ie: former criminal, military applicant, employee of airport (or whatever group) required to submit DNA sample as condition of employment.

I’m aware of this, and infact I support it wholeheartedly. The question of whether it was possible to use this system for criminal investigation–and I hope that prospect wouldn’t go far–just struck my mind as an object of curiosity.

Sidenote: FWIW, Xema is correct in stating that my meaning of “prosecute” was “evidence during prosecution of”.

As a side note, the public needle disposal units are usually meant for insulin syringes. I don’t think they’re highly used by drug users, but I doubt there’s any way to really know.

Well, they’ve got a different goal too, you know… :wink:

Anyway, I figured that if the bins were for insulin they would be more widespread. There’s nothing controversial about insulin (at least, not in the context of the morality of making it convenient for people to shoot it up in your airport). I assumed that the reason I’ve only ever seen a needle disposal bin in one airport bathroom, ever (having been in several of the larger American airports as well as Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv), is because the disposal bin is for something controversial, like illegal drug use.