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NYPD accused of illegally obtaining, storing the DNA samples of nearly 32,000 people

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(NEW YORK) — A federal lawsuit accuses the New York Police Department of surreptitiously taking DNA samples without obtaining warrants and storing the genetic material in perpetuity in an illegal and unregulated database.

The database turns thousands of people, primarily Black and Latino people, into “permanent criminal suspects,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan.

Plaintiff Shakira Leslie was one of the nearly 32,000 individuals who had DNA taken without her knowledge, the lawsuit says.

In 2019, Leslie was 23 and had left a cousin’s birthday party when police pulled over the car she was riding in for a traffic violation, the lawsuit says. There was a gun in the car and everyone was arrested, it says.

At the precinct, the lawsuit says, officers deprived Leslie of food and water for more than 12 hours so when she was finally offered a cup of water, she immediately drank it.

Leslie was released and the charges against dropped, but not before the NYPD collected her drinking cup and took her DNA, according to the lawsuit, which was filed by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of Leslie and a second plaintiff. It names as defendants several top officials at the NYPD and the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which maintains the DNA database.

“Ms. Leslie never offered, and was never asked for, her consent to have her DNA taken. And the NYPD did not obtain a warrant or court order before secretly taking her DNA and sending the sample to OCME to perform DNA testing,” the lawsuit says, arguing the DNA collection and analysis violates the plaintiffs’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The police routinely offer people who are being questioned about a crime a beverage, a cigarette or chewing gum and then collect DNA from the items, the lawsuit says. The suit claims the genetic material is stored and cataloged in a “suspect index” that puts people’s DNA profiles through “a genetic lineup that compares the profiles against all past and future crime scene DNA evidence — all without obtaining a warrant or court order to conduct these DNA searches.”

“Thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom are Black and brown, and many of whom have never been convicted of any crime, are illegally in the City’s rogue DNA database, which treats people as suspects in every crime involving DNA,” said Phil Desgranges, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “We simply cannot trust the NYPD to police itself, and we look forward to judicial review of these destructive practices to bring our clients the justice they deserve.”

The New York City Law Department told ABC News it would review the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the NYPD, Sgt. Edward Riley, said the department would also review the lawsuit but said that DNA collection is among the best practices of law enforcement.

“Behind every time the NYPD collects DNA from a suspect in a criminal investigation, there is a crime victim who is suffering and seeking justice. The driving motivation for the NYPD to collect DNA is to legally identify the correct perpetrator, build the strongest case possible for investigators and our partners in the various prosecutor’s offices, and bring closure to victims and their families,” Riley said in a statement provided to ABC News.

“The local DNA database complies with all applicable laws and is managed and used in accordance with the highest scientific standards set by independent accrediting bodies that have regularly reapproved the existence of the database,” the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said in a statement.

The Legal Aid Society says in the lawsuit that the database violates state laws that limit DNA indexing and “hoards the DNA of arrestees and suspects” without oversight and often at the expense of people of color.

“Black and Latinx people make up the vast majority of arrestees who are subject to the City’s DNA taking and indexing practice,” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief to end the City’s practice of targeting thousands of individuals, many of whom have never been convicted of a crime, to take their DNA and turn them into permanent suspects.”

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