Government Police

Expanded DNA Collection Bill Pits Public Safety Against Privacy

Est. Read Time: 4 mins

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi thinks allowing investigators to collect DNA after an arrest could remove violent criminals from Pennsylvania’s streets.

The Delaware County Republican is lobbying to expand the state’s DNA-collection law, arguing police could stop repeat offenders if the authorities didn’t have to wait for a conviction before swabbing a suspect, as current law requires.dna-163466_1280

“We’re really behind the curve here in law enforcement,” Pileggi said this week after his bill allowing for post-arrest DNA sampling passed the Senate.

Law-enforcement groups have coalesced behind the bill, but the proposal to place Pennsylvania among 28 other states with similar laws isn’t without controversy.

Where Pileggi sees the possibility for safer communities, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sees an erosion of due process rights. If police need DNA to connect a suspect to a crime they should get a warrant, said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the state chapter of the ACLU.

“This warrantless DNA collection scheme is Big Government on steroids,”Shuford said in a statement. “People have a fundamental right to privacy in their bodies. That right doesn’t go away because the person has been arrested.”

The state now relegates DNA collection to people convicted of crimes related to homicide and to certain sex offenses. Pileggi’s legislation expands on that, allowing post-arrest collection for people suspected of criminal homicide, sexual offenses and all other felonies, plus some specified misdemeanors.

Under that expansion, authorities would take DNA from people arrested on suspicion of check forging, making a false statement on an insurance claim and a second offense for recording in a movie theater, says Mary Catherine Roper, a deputy legal director with the ALCU of Pennsylvania. The bill also covers criminal trespass involving a school; a charge, Roper says, that often falls on protesters.

Pileggi downplayed the ACLU concern. Police collect fingerprints from suspects and take their mug shots, both of which happen before a conviction, he said.

“This is absolutely no different,” Pileggi said.

Law enforcement sees DNA sampling as lifesaver

Plus, Pileggi said, he looks at the benefits and not the burdens. It’s hard to put a value on closing unsolved cases and keeping the public safe from further trauma, he said.

Law-enforcement groups, such as the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, support Pileggi’s bill. In a letter sent to lawmakers earlier this year, Greg Rowe, legislative liaison for the association, wrote that expanding DNA collection would give investigators a tool to solve crime more quickly and reduce wrongful convictions.

The association cited a University of Virginia study that concluded DNA databases reduce crimes rates, particularly in cases of murder, rape assault and vehicle theft, when forensic evidence is left at the scene.

“By expanding the number of DNA samples taken, this provision will help bring violent offenders to justice and help save lives,” Rowe wrote.

Both the association and Pileggi cited the case of Philadelphia’s “Kensington Strangler.” In 2010, Antonio Rodriguez raped and killed three women.

Police had arrested him earlier on a felony drug charge.

“Had a DNA sample been taken at the time of his arrest, his DNA would have been matched to the first homicide crime scene, and his subsequent victims may have been spared,” the PDAA wrote in the letter.

ACLU sees other problems

The Kensington Strangler case, though, demonstrates why expanding DNA collection could be a challenge. The PDAA noted that a backlog prevented Rodriguez’s DNA, obtained after his conviction on the drug charges, from being processed in timely matter. That delay also allowed his crimes to continue.

The ACLU believes the legislation, if enacted, would quadruple the workload for the state police DNA lab.

“The state police don’t have the resources to process quickly the DNA samples they get now. Flooding that system with DNA samples that we have no reason to expect will ever help us solve a crime is just short-sighted,” Roper said.

Pennsylvania started collecting DNA samples for select felonies in 1996 and has one DNA lab. The database houses about 330,000 samples. About 5,000—or 1.5 percent—of the samples have been used to identify a suspect and solve a crime, said Maria Finn, press secretary for Pennsylvania State Police.

Expanding the DNA collection law would “increase workload greatly” for a lab that’s already limited in capacity, Finn said. State police would need more workers and a larger facility, she said.

To ease the transition, Pileggi noted that new collection provisions would be phased in over time, starting with criminal homicide, then felony sex offenses and then other crimes.

According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, state police expect 500 additional DNA samples would be collected in the first year after the legislation is enacted, and the cost could be absorbed with current financial resources.

But the second phase of the legislation would result in collecting and processing 5,000 more DNA samples, costing $586,500 for personnel, supplies and equipment, according to the analysis.

That analysis was silent on the cost of third phase of implementation but noted federal grants could cover the expenses.

Finn says Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is opposed to the legislation, which has passed the Senate in various forms three times but has stalled in the House.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on PAIndependent.com. It is republished on Saucon Source with permission.

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About the author

Josh Popichak

Josh Popichak is the owner, publisher and editor of Saucon Source. A Lehigh Valley native, he's covered local news since 2005 and previously worked for Berks-Mont News and AOL/Patch. Contact him at josh@sauconsource.com.

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