Legislature to consider expansion of DNA testing

Posted April 29, 2011, at 8:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – People charged with major violent crimes would be required to surrender DNA samples to law enforcement officials under legislation endorsed by a legislative committee this week.

The bill, while supported by the majority of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, raised concerns of civil rights activists, who called it a major expansion of police power.

While the committee recommended the bill on Thursday, the lawmakers were divided on when those surrendered DNA samples would be processed and on how to pay for the expansion.

The majority report would not allow the processing of those samples until probable cause had been found by a judge or a grand jury. It also would have the DNA sample processed if someone skipped bail.

“That is very important,” said Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, the sponsor of the bill. “If somebody knows they have done something really horrible in the past, they will know that their DNA will be processed after probable cause and we need to move to test that DNA right then.”

The panel voted on the measure after hearing a presentation from Jayann Sepich, founder of DNA Saves, a New Mexico woman whose 22-year-old daughter Katie was raped and killed. The New Mexico legislature passed “Katie’s Law” in 2006 that mandates collection of DNA samples from those charged with violent crimes.

“That was a very informative and compelling presentation,” said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, co-chairman of the panel. “I had some concerns about this when we first got it, but I think this is a good approach.”

He was opposed — as were most members of the committee — to Maloney’s initial funding mechanism, a surcharge on all traffic violations. As drafted, the measure will go the Appropriations Committee with a price tag yet to be determined.

Estimates range from $300,000 a year to $800,000 a year to do the tests with one option to send them to an outside lab instead of having the State Crime Lab do the testing.

“I don’t think it will be as much as some predict,” Maloney said. “It is only $225,000 a year in New Mexico.”

The minority report would mandate collection of DNA, but only after probable cause has been found by a judge or grand jury. Opponents say that defeats the purpose of the bill to get the DNA into the system as soon as possible to see if the person is already in law enforcement databases or being sought for another crime.

“I just can’t go along with that proposal,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, during a lengthy discussion of the measure. “We need to get that DNA sample earlier, not later. It will not be processed until probable cause is found and that is as far as I can go.”

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she could not support processing the DNA samples without a determination of probable cause. She is worried about the constitutional implications of forcing a person to do something without at least probable cause being found they have committed a crime.

“I am not sure where in the process we should do this but I think after probable cause has been found seems best to me,” she said.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, supported the minority report, but stated during committee discussion that he was having difficulty supporting a measure that would have significant cost, given the budget problems facing the state.

“We should prioritize what we want to do,” he said. “If this is more important than some other program, we should go down before the Appropriations Committee and tell them our priorities.”

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said neither of the proposals adequately protects the fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches.

“In our criminal justice system, everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” she said. “DNA is our most personal information about us and for the DNA to be collected and stored in the database there needs to be a very good reason. It should be limited to those that have been found guilty.”

Bellows said the MCLU believes the minority report is better than the majority, but still contributes to the continuation of the increase in the power of police to collect and permanently store DNA samples in a database. She said that increase is hurting law enforcement’s ability to properly use the information in the databases of convicted criminals because of the backlog it has created in processing the DNA samples.

The measure now goes to the full Legislature for its consideration.

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