New bill would limit police use of DNA collected from newborn blood screening

By: - September 28, 2022 7:00 am

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji said police should not be able to use blood drawn for health screenings to "circumvent the judicial scrutiny of probable cause and violate the privacy rights and constitutional rights of New Jerseyans." (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Two state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would bar New Jersey from using DNA samples the state stores from its newborn blood screening program for anything other than detecting disease.

Assembly members Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) introduced the bill last week in response to the state Office of the Public Defender’s discovery that state police retrieved an infant’s years-old sample to link the child’s father to an unsolved rape case.

The office, along with the New Jersey Monitor, sued the state in July after officials refused to divulge how and how often the state uses stored samples, known as blood spots, beyond screening for hidden diseases.

“Frankly, I was alarmed that parents aren’t even aware that infant DNA might be retained, let alone that that police would be using it to circumvent the judicial scrutiny of probable cause and violate the privacy rights and constitutional rights of New Jerseyans,” Mukherji said.

Legislators will consider the bill Thursday afternoon at a public meeting of the Assembly’s judiciary committee, which Mukherji chairs.

The bill would also forbid law enforcement from using DNA collected from crime victims or witnesses to later link them to other unrelated crimes, a response to a San Francisco case where police used DNA evidence collected from a rape victim in 2016 to charge her with retail theft in 2021.

“Just like when the public was unhappy to learn that rape victims’ DNA could be used in the future to implicate them in potential criminal activity, I don’t think that people would be happy to learn that their infants’ DNA is being used for any other purpose than disease screening, which is what they’re told at the time blood is collected,” Mukherji said.

Mukherji said he’s “distressed” at the state’s secrecy around how baby blood spots are used after disease screening.

“We definitely are going to pose those questions through the legislative oversight process since apparently public record requests have not been successful,” he said.

Attorney Jennifer Sellitti, a spokeswoman for the state Office of the Public Defender, applauded the spirit of the bill, but said it should address retention and consent.

New Jersey requires all newborns to be tested for 59 disorders within 48 hours of birth and retains dried blood spots for 23 years. That’s too long, Sellitti said.

“Keeping somebody’s blood around for 23 years leaves it so vulnerable for misuse in police investigations,” she said.

An informational form the state gives new parents about the program is vague and fails to define how the state might use blood spots during the storage period.

Sellitti said instead of automatically collecting blood and only allowing parents to opt out for religious reasons, the program should destroy blood spots after disease screening is done — and offer an “opt-in” for parents who might want samples stored for specific reasons.

“There may be parents who say: ‘I want my kids’ blood stored because, God forbid, if my kid ever gets kidnapped, I can use this to identify remains,’” Sellitti said.

Legislators should also bar the state from selling blood spots to companies for research, as other states like Michigan do, she added.

“I think it’s simple,” she said. “If they take your blood for something called the newborn screening database, the uses for the blood are in the title. You’re screening for diseases, then get rid of it. If a parent wants to opt in to keep it longer for whatever reason, give them that option, end of story.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.