POLL QUESTION

Maine may expand DNA testing despite opposition to costs

Posted Jan. 05, 2012, at 7:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 06, 2012, at 10:04 a.m.

Poll Question

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has split on controversial legislation that would expand the taking of DNA samples from people charged with major violent crimes, even while Gov. Paul LePage’s administration opposes the proposal because of its cost.

“This is a baby step,” said Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, the bill’s sponsor. “The minority report [last year] was to collect the sample after finding probable cause. The baby step we are suggesting is to collect the sample after indictment, which is after finding probable cause.”

The controversy over the bill last year led to it being carried over to this session. The original bill would have mandated the collection of DNA samples from anyone charged with a violent felony crime but 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.

“My concerns are still money,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Morris. “Who is going to pay for it? As I testified last year, the intention of this is wonderful, but if you ask me to put this in the list of unfunded items, this would not be at the top of the list.”

He said there are several areas of need at the agency and increased resources for the computer crime lab certainly would have a higher priority than the DNA sampling bill.

Lt. William Harwood, director of the crime lab, estimated the amended measure would cost $300,000 a year and require more staff and equipment.

“We just do not have the infrastructure in place,” he said. “Since the committee was last in session, we have had our grants go down and we may have to make additional cuts in staff.”

Harwood said the lab is processing nearly 2,000 DNA samples a year from those convicted of a crime and they are having difficulty keeping current because of other demands on lab staff. He said some samples are sent to contract labs now because of the heavy workload.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Livermore Falls, Senate co-chairman of the panel, supports the bill. He suggested the funding question is up to the Appropriations Committee that referred the bill back to the Criminal Justice Committee when it could not find the funding for the measure.

“They expressed some support for this bill, and if they can fund it, we should do this,” he said.

Morris said if the Appropriations Committee does fund the measure, then his agency will implement the changes, but again stressed it is not a priority for the department.

“I can support this and let Appropriations deal with the cost,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. He supported the broader proposal that failed to find funding last year.

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 they have committed a crime.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, opposed the bill last year and is still concerned about the cost, given the other budget problems the state faces.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, opposed the legislation last year and made it clear any testing before a criminal conviction would be opposed by that organization.

“In our criminal justice system, everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” she said in an interview. “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.”

The committee members have until the close of business Monday to sign the committee report. It is not clear whether the bill will have majority support, but in any case, the issue then will move to the full Legislature for consideration.

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