DNA Testing Upon Felony Arrest Debated

Feb 13, 2013

Using D-N-A evidence in the prosecution of crimes is not new, but new uses continue to surface. While often effective, critics worry those techniques could amount to an unlawful search and violate the U-S Constitution.  Kentucky’s General Assembly took up those questions today.  Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee was Jayann Sepich.   She told how, in 2003, her 22 year old daughter Katie was raped and murdered outside her New Mexico home.   A D-N-A test identified her attacker.  Now, Jayann Sepich says Kentucky should collect D-N-A samples from a suspect whenever there’s a felony arrest.

Those samples can then be recorded, for later use, just like finger prints.

“I don’t have very long to explain to you how this simple process, this simple swabbing of the cheek, which takes less than three to five minutes, and is less invasive than brushing one’s teeth, has the power to bring justice, and healing to families sooner, rather than later,” said Sepich.

Sepich told committee members, the cheek swabbing technique is more than a way to identify suspects in a criminal investigation.  She claims it can also play a big role in crime prevention.

“I came across a study that was done by the city of Chicago that followed eight convicted felons and it found if those felons had had their DNA taken at the time of their first arrest, 53 rapes and murders could have been prevented,” added Sepich.

Among the opponents to the automatic collection of D-N-A samples from suspected felons are Kentucky’s Criminal Defense Attorneys.  Spokesman Ernie Lewis worries such sampling could, eventually, become commonplace.

“If it’s such a powerful law enforcement tool, why would it not be OK to take DNA from all of us, when we get our driver’s license.  I think it’s because we would recoil at government having that much power,” said Lewis.

Lewis wondered aloud, does taking a sample from a suspect for D-N-A testing imply guilt.  Sharing those concerns was Derrick Selznick from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

"If you are say 18 and in a car with cocaine, simple in that same car, you can be charged with possession and be swabbed while completely innocent.  And this is for us, a significant concern,”said Selznick.

Bill sponsor Mary Lou Marzian says annually in Kentucky, some 40-thousand people are arrested on felony charges.  She adds gathering samples from those suspects and then conducting D-N-A tests could cost over one-point-three million dollars a year.

Victim’s advocate Jayann Sepich says those costs are just a small portion of the price already paid in the Commonwealth for criminal investigations and prosecutions.  To save money, Kentucky Jailers Association President Mike Simpson says convicted felons could be tracked, using their fingerprints and DNA. Then, he says, another D-N-A test could be avoided.

‘If someone is in my facility, we fingerprint, we take the DNA.  If that person bonds out and re-arrested at another particular facility and is gonna be fingerprinted a second time, they will be able to see that within the AVIS system and a second DNA would not be necessary,” explained Simpson.

The committee also discussed the fate of D-N-A records.  In some states, when a suspect is cleared of felony charges, those records are automatically destroyed. It’s an issue under debate with this bill, so Western Kentucky Representative Brent Yontz cast a cautious vote in favor of additional D-N-A testing.

“The issue of constitutionality is out there and I’m always afraid of issues that deal into getting information before someone is convicted.  And this one is gonna be decide fairly quickly by the courts, so I vote yes,” said Yontz.

The bill won overwhelming support in the House Judiciary Committee.

Some the questions raised by the committee could be answered this summer when the U-S Supreme Court rules in a related case.  That ruling, in large part, could determine the scope of any program in the Commonwealth that collects, tests and preserves a suspect’s D-N-A records.