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Expanding DNA collection comes at cost to taxpayer

By   /   September 19, 2012  /   No Comments

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

DNA collection, usually done with a cotton swab, could be added to Pennsylvania’s booking process for individuals charged with felonies and certain misdemeanors.

HARRISBURG — Collecting DNA from people who are arrested may seem like a panacea for crime.

Police can build and tap into an expanding database to find out if a person has committed a previous offense, which he has eluded, and increase conviction rates.

But Pennsylvania State Police say such a proposal would increase the state’s DNA lab’s caseload nearly five times over.

And then there are the groups who say pre-conviction DNA collection could violate people’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The state House this fall could take up a Senate Bill 775 that would require DNA samples from individuals upon arrest for certain crimes. The bill is tentatively scheduled for a hearing on Sept. 25, according to House Judiciary Committee staff and updated committee calendars.

Throughout the summer, staff and state police have been working on new versions of the Senate bill to address case overload and constitutional rights issues.

The committee’s executive director, Tom Dymck, said staff spent the summer working with Pennsylvania State Police on potentially narrowing what offenses the collection would apply to.

As the bill stands, it would apply to people arrested on charges of all felonies and certain misdemeanors.

The bill would require law enforcement to obtain DNA samples as part of the booking process, like fingerprinting. From there, it’d be entered in the state DNA database from the lab in Greensburg, as well the federal database. If the person is acquitted or otherwise exonerated of the specific charge, the state would remove the sample from its database. The individual would then have to ensure its removal from the federal database, as well.

State and federal courts have heard constitutional challenges to similar laws in other states, including a recent one in California and in Maryland, where the law was overturned but is subject to appeal.

The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said he does not believe Pennsylvania’s legislation would be found unconstitutional. Rather, he said, Pennsylvania has “an obligation” to use modern technology to the same extent that many other states and the federal government already do.

“It’s been proven in the 26 states that have a broader pre-conviction DNA collection system that it saves lives,” Pileggi told PA Independent. “It removes from the general population violent predators.”

For example, someone who is released on bail and commits another crime could’ve been held, if their DNA sample analysis had linked them to a previous offense, Pileggi said.

Under Pennsylvania law, those convicted of any felony have their DNA collected.

Maj. Mark Schau, director of forensic services for the Pennsylvania State Police, said the current bill would expand the DNA caseload from around 22,000 collections annually to more than 120,000.

“We’ve been going back and forth (with the Legislature) trying to make some revisions on how this could maybe have less of an impact on police operations,” Schau said.

In the first year, the Pennsylvania State Police would require more than $560,000 to implement the expanded testing, according to Senate analysis.

But that figure is bound to rise, as the bill includes a phase-in period that would begin the collection with the most serious offenses before expanding to the full list.

Already, the lab’s workload and staff has doubled in the last two-and-half years, Schau said.

The state’s DNA lab services around 1,200 law enforcement agencies statewide, who send crime scene evidence to the lab to get it checked against the database.

Each year, the database turns up around 600 investigative leads, Schau said, out of around 2,000 cases cross-referenced with the database. The database has around 250,000 samples, he said.

Civil liberties advocates say pre-conviction DNA collection violates constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure.

Andy Hoover, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said when people are convicted of a crime, they give up certain rights to privacy. But pre-conviction DNA collection subjects individuals to a “suspicionless search,” he said.

“It’s when the government wants to start taking DNA from people who are innocent under the law, there’s a problem,” Hoover said. “We could solve a lot of crimes if we just took DNA from everyone. That doesn’t mean we should.”

DNA store the most microscopic details of a person’s identity, far beyond that of a fingerprint or mug shot, Hoover said.

If someone is found innocent, state officials would destroy those DNA samples from the state database, according the version of the bill that passed in the Senate.

But state agencies have no jurisdiction to remove it from the federal database, meaning the individual must ensure his record is clean.

Hoover, who testified on the bill previously, said this is too much of a burden for people who have committed no crime.

“There’s no guarantee those parties will make sure it happens,” he said. “It really does fall on the person to make sure their DNA is removed.”


Melissa formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.