AUGUSTA, Maine — Persons charged with a serious crime or a sex crime against a child would have to submit to DNA sampling under a measure that would greatly expand the state DNA database, but it is drawing fire from civil libertarians and those worried about the cost.
“This is already the law in 24 states,“ said Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, sponsor of the measure. “This would do two things. One, it exonerates people who are innocent, and two it has been able to find people who are not innocent.”
She said there are many examples across the country where collecting the samples have solved serious crimes. She said often a person arrested in one state has been convicted of a crime in another state or may be wanted for a serious crime, and having the sample helps law enforcement do their job.
The measure covers murder, any crime that has a penalty of at least five years in prison and sex crimes against a child ranging from sexual abuse of a minor to soliciting a child by computer to commit a prohibited act.
“I think DNA has almost become like fingerprinting,“ she said. “We should be using this tool like we use fingerprinting.”
But the proposal is drawing concern and outright opposition.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the proposal undercuts a fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches.
“In our criminal justice system, everyone is innocent until proven guilty,“ she said. “Arrestees have not yet been convicted of a crime and may never be. It is wrong to collect their DNA, and it amounts to a search and it violates the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.”
Bellows said the MCLU is very concerned the measure is a continuation of a dramatic increase in the power of police to collect and permanently store DNA samples in a database. She said the unchecked expansion is actually 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.
District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said DNA samples have been collected from some convicted Mainers for years, and that database has been useful to prosecutors. He said this proposal has not been discussed by the prosecutors association, but as one DA, he has concerns with its practicality.
“This would be costly and probably require an expansion of the State Police Crime Lab,” he said. “I am also concerned about the scope of the crimes that are covered. The way it is written now it would include a habitual motor vehicle offender.”
Rushlau said narrowing the scope of crimes covered might have more support, like only collecting samples from those charged with offenses against people. He said even then the cost will be significant.
Maloney is proposing to fund the increased sampling by imposing a 7 percent surcharge on all criminal and motor vehicle fines. There are already surcharges that add 20 percent to whatever the base fine is for an offense. The state collects more than $44 million a year in fines, fees and forfeitures.
“I am not even getting to the civil liberties concern, “ said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee which will consider the legislation. “A fee is just another name for a tax to me, and getting any new tax through for anything is going to be very hard, if not impossible.“
Plummer said the issue of the scope of DNA testing for convicted Mainers had spurred considerable debate in the committee in past sessions, and he is certain this proposal also will stir debate. Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the Democrat senator on the panel and a former co-chairman, agreed with Plummer.
“Fingerprinting is already done for identification,“ he said. “This is another level entirely; this is the genetic map of the entire person.”
Gerzofsky says he was House chairman of the panel when lawmakers approved the testing of those convicted of a crime, and he said that was a controversial measure. He said extending collection of DNA to a person simply charged with a crime will raise a lot of concern.
Maloney is hopeful the language in the bill that would allow a person found innocent to get the DNA sample destroyed will ease the fears of some. The measure has not been scheduled for a public hearing.