2011-10-06 / Local & State

DNA Procedures In Pa. Could Soon Change

By Mark Scolforo

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Pennsylvania's law that governs the collection of DNA may soon get its first overhaul since it was established 16 years ago, but some are voicing concerns about the proposal's effect on civil liberties as well as the cost to taxpayers.

A bill to mandate DNA collection from people accused of serious crimes, among other changes, passed the state Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously on Tuesday and will probably get a vote in the full Senate sometime this fall.

Current law requires people who are convicted of a set of serious felonies to submit to having a DNA sample taken by a swab on the inside of their cheek. Lawmakers are now considering a requirement that those samples be collected upon arrest _ and they would be taken for any felony as well as some misdemeanors.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania opposes the bill, saying people who have been arrested deserve the presumption of innocence. The ACLU also argues that the expansion would greatly add to the already overburdened state police system and the cost would be some $13 million. The state associations of prosecutors and chiefs of police both support the legislation.

About half of the states and the federal government currently take DNA from arrestees, and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just upheld the practice.

The bill submitted by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, would also let investigators, under narrow circumstances, test crime scene samples to see if they contain enough markers to determine whether the perpetrator was likely to be a close relative of someone whose DNA is already in the state database. That type of “kinship analysis” has been used for paternity reasons and to identify remains.

Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said that could lead to fishing expeditions by investigators at the expense of privacy.

“Privacy rights are very important,” Leach said. “We should only take them away from people in clear circumstances.”

Pileggi said police have long been allowed to collect and keep fingerprints and photos, records that can convey more information about an individual than their DNA record.

“It's a very intentionally chosen segment of DNA that does not reveal personal characteristics,” he said.

State police have said that their DNA lab last year received 1,924 cases and completed 1,412, with an average turnaround time of 240 days. The department received 23,938 convicted offender samples for testing, and the state now has more than 240,000 offenders registered in the National Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS. Over the past five years, state police report more than 2,700 “hits” to samples uploaded by its lab.

The bill would immediately and automatically purge DNA records after someone is exonerated – under current law a court order is required – and ban the use of the records for human behavioral genetic research.

“Once you open the door to uses other than law enforcement, it introduces a whole host of issues and problems that I believe would slow down passage of the legislation and really are not where my focus is on this bill,” Pileggi said.

The measure would add to the list of crimes for which testing is required: simple assault against a child under 12 by an adult who is at least 21 years old, unlawful restraint, defiant criminal trespass on school grounds, concealing the death of a child, endangering the welfare of a child and dealing in infant children.

Other updates include accreditation standards for forensic DNA testing labs and continuing education requirements for people involved in doing the testing.

Most recently, the bill was amended to have the testing done when someone is booked, or as soon as possible after arrest, rather than after a preliminary hearing, and to phase in over two years the list of new crimes that are covered.

Leach said it would be bad public policy to allow collection of DNA for someone who is arrested, before any court has determined whether he or she did something wrong.

“Our system depends on neutral fact-finders as a protection against arbitrary law enforcement,” Leach said.

Pileggi said the changes will take into account improvements in technology as well as the lessons learned by the use of DNA in criminal investigations since the state law was first enacted. He sees it as a way to help investigators solve serious crimes more quickly and efficiently.

“The clear picture that emerges from both of those trends is we in Pennsylvania are underutilizing this very important investigative tool,” Pileggi said. “And when it is successfully and fully utilized, it literally saves lives.”

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