You’re under arrest and we’ll need your DNA


So says Pennsylvania bill that may help solve crimes faster. Foes say it threatens civil rights.

Taking DNA samples from people charged with but not yet convicted of serious crimes would give police and prosecutors a powerful new tool to solve crimes faster and even prevent others from happening.

But a proposal to expand Pennsylvania’s collection of genetic identification has drawn fire from criminal defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, who say it threatens the principle that a person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty.

You’re under arrest and we’ll need your DNA

Furthermore, opponents argue, the collection of evidence without a warrant and invasion of privacy inherent in taking a person’s genetic material damage everyone’s civil rights.

“The government can’t snatch your medical records without judicial intervention; they shouldn’t be able to snatch your biology without judicial intervention,” Easton criminal defense attorney Gary Asteak said.

State police say DNA collection is a useful tool, but that they can’t support the proposed expansion because state lawmakers have not provided funding to do it. They also question whether the increased cost of a broader approach would pay off. A bill in the Legislature would cost the state police $27 million to hire additional technicians and build a new laboratory, a state police spokesman said.

Under existing state law, offenders convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors must give DNA samples for inclusion in state and federal identification databases.

“DNA is a great tool to identify the people who commit crimes and it can exonerate people who haven’t committed crimes,” said Greg Rowe, a prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office who handles legislative affairs for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

A bill passed by the state House Judiciary Committee last week would extend the requirement to people who are charged with serious crimes — including homicide, sex offenses and indecent assault — after a district judge rules there’s enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

The bill would add several felonies that trigger the DNA identification requirement on conviction, including selling infants and concealing the death of a child and unlawful restraint. It expands the DNA sample requirement at conviction to people charged with misdemeanors that require registration as a sex offender.

It expands the range of crimes that trigger the DNA sample requirement upon conviction to less-serious offenses, including simple assault and criminal trespassing. The bill also would allow police to search the database for genetic profiles of close relatives to people whose DNA is found at a crime.

Expanding the pool of people subject to DNA identification would help police link suspects to unsolved crimes and keep violent serial criminals off the streets, Rowe said.

Thomas Dymeck, an attorney for the House Judiciary Committee, compared the expansion of DNA identification at arrest to fingerprinting, which has been part of the booking process for decades.

“It is a perfect fingerprint,” he said of the genetic material used to identify criminals. “That’s all this bill is. It’s bringing arrestee identification into the 21st century.”

State police officials, however, warned that the benefit of expanded DNA identification might not be worth the significant cost and increase in workload that it brings. In a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month, state police Lt. Col. Scott Snyder warned that without dedicated funding, the expansion would bring an unending struggle to pay for the requirement.

Although offenders and outside agencies must pay for DNA analysis performed by the state police, the reimbursement rate is 40 percent or lower, Snyder testified.

And the state police say the value of collecting DNA from suspects may be overstated, since the benefit depends on the ability to quickly process the sample and add it to the database. Snyder added that the removal of up to 75 percent of arrestee DNA samples from the database through acquittals or as a result of plea deals would further dilute the benefit of taking DNA upon arrest.

If DNA identification in Pennsylvania is to be expanded, law enforcement would see the greatest benefit if offenders must provide a sample upon arrest for less serious crimes like theft, which often show up early on the rap sheets of people who go on to commit violent felonies, Snyder said.

The legislation, Senate Bill 150, was sponsored in the Senate by Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County. Locally, Sens. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, and Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, are among the sponsors. There are no sponsors in the House.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republicans, said he didn’t think the bill would come up for a vote in December. Some members have raised concerns over privacy issues and other matters, he said.

“It just needs a little more work, but we believe it might be doable,” he said.

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