Despite law, is Utah holding onto DNA evidence from those arrested but not charged?
Public safety officials say no, but lawsuituit claims Utah doesn’t have a system to follow up on cases and delete evidence
SALT LAKE CITY — In 2011, Utah began allowing jailers to collect DNA from certain suspects, not just those found guilty of crimes. The change came with limits, however: the new law said a sample must be destroyed if prosecutors don’t end up filing formal charges within 90 days.
More than a decade later, a pending lawsuit alleges there’s no way for more than 100 people who have been arrested in the state but never charged to make sure their DNA is no longer in the hands of investigators.
The legal claim comes from an Illinois man who was pulled over in Tooele County in 2018. The 31-year-old Joseph Hoskins contends a Utah trooper illegally searched and arrested him during a traffic stop, before training a gun on him and seizing about $90,000 in cash from his car while he was on a road trip to gamble in Reno.
Hoskins, who wasn’t charged with any crime, hasn’t been able to verify whether police still have his DNA on file and contends there’s no state system to track and follow up cases like his. He’s alleging violation of due process, plus unreasonable search and seizure, in his suit filed in Salt Lake City’s federal court.
His attorneys updated the suit March 9 as a class-action claim, based on their reviews of arrests and court records.
“I think a lot of people say, ‘Well I don’t have anything to hide,’” said his attorney Anna Christiansen. “But it’s not a matter of having anything to hide. It’s simply, this is your DNA and it’s your business. And the state doesn’t need to have that, short of the rights that they have through the statute. They don’t have any need or reason to be hanging onto that, and they shouldn’t.”
There’s a formal process for those acquitted of crimes to make sure law enforcers no longer have the material, but not for those never charged, Christiansen said.
Lt. Nick Street with the Department of Public Safety said the state crime lab does in fact get rid of the evidence within 90 days, and not just because the samples of saliva start to take up space on its shelves.
“They go ahead and just destroy that” under an internal policy, he told the Deseret News. Street noted the law doesn’t require the agency to notify a person when that happens.
The FBI, for its part, retains fingerprints and DNA collected from those arrested, Street said, even if they’re not ultimately charged. He said the Utah Highway Patrol stands by its determination there was probable cause to arrest Hoskins. Street declined further comment because of the pending lawsuit.
James Czerniawski, with the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute that has backed state privacy rights measures in Utah in recent years, called the allegations “alarming.”
If they’re true, he said, they “really highlight the need for the forensics folk to come up with that destruction process as they’re required by statute. And if they don’t, then we’ll probably have to look at how we can reform the law to be more transparent.”
In his lawsuit, Hoskins is seeking unspecified damages and a judge’s order requiring the state to set up a tracking system and destroy old samples of DNA. He names Jess Anderson, Utah’s public safety commissioner, and Jared Withers, the trooper who stopped him, as defendants.
Hoskins, who works for a union representing construction workers operating heavy machinery, declined an interview through his attorneys.
The lawyers said he shouldn’t have been pulled over at all on Nov. 13, 2018. He was booked into jail for alleged money laundering and criminal conspiracy after the trooper found the cash but no drugs.
While a license plate holder that reads “Peoria Toyota” was covering up the name of his home state, they said that’s common, and Utah’s plate requirements don’t apply to cars from other states.
Withers saw Hoskins was traveling alone from out of state and “speculated that Joe might have drugs or cash on him that could be seized,” the suit alleges. Attorneys in the Utah Attorney General’s Office dispute that and contend the trooper didn’t violate Hoskins’ rights. They’ve asked a judge to dismiss those claims.
There were no warrants for Hoskins’ arrest and his license was valid, but the trooper questioned him as he searched for his registration, had him lift his shirt to show he had no weapons, and brought out a drug-sniffing dog who jumped and clawed at the vehicle but did not sit — the trained response for detecting narcotics — the suit says.
The trooper had the driver place his cell phone on the hood of the patrol car, but when Hoskins began using a different phone, the trooper grabbed it and shoved him, the lawsuit claims, describing the exchange based on police body camera footage.
Hoskins began using several expletives and insults, the suit says,
“It’s not great, but I also think folks have their limits,” Christiansen said.
The trooper asked if Hoskins wanted the dog to come out and repeatedly said, “How many more phones do you have?” before walking about six feet away, drawing his gun and training it on Hoskins’ upper body, the suit says, before handcuffing him and placing him in the patrol car.
No upcoming hearings have been scheduled.