DNA proposal has foes

Pa. bill to expand its collection opposed by the ACLU.

Posted: October 02, 2011

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania law governing DNA collection may soon get the first overhaul since it was established 16 years ago, but critics have raised concerns about the effect of a proposed change 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 convicted of certain serious felonies to undergo a DNA swab of the inside of the cheek. Lawmakers are considering a requirement to take those samples upon arrest involving felonies as well as some misdemeanors.

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

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

The bill submitted by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) would also let investigators, in narrow circumstances, test crime-scene samples to see whether 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, 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 had long been allowed to collect and keep fingerprints and photos, records that can convey more information about an individual than a DNA record.

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

State police have said 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 samples from convicted offenders 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 last five years, state police reported 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.


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