Lawmakers balk at expanding DNA sampling of suspects
It may be constitutional but Utah lawmakers aren't rushing to expand DNA collection from those suspected but not convicted of committing a crime.
The Legislature's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday balked at giving its stamp of approval to a draft bill that would require collection of DNA swabs at the time of arrest from anyone booked on suspicion of a class A misdemeanor or felony.
The 8-4 vote against speeding the bill along to the full Legislature came after the draft bill's House sponsor and its law-enforcement backers touted it as a potentially great tool for crime solving while civil-rights groups warned against it as violating privacy and the right to a presumption of innocence.
"This will help get additional dangerous criminals off the street," said sponsoring Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. "It is so beneficial to law enforcement."
Jay Henry, director of the state crime lab, told lawmakers about Utah's DNA database, 100,000 samples strong and growing. Investigators are now averaging one or two hits a week that can lead to breaks in criminal cases, he said.
Police "rely on this tool every day in their investigations," Henry said. "It's a huge benefit to law enforcement."
While that may be true, said Marina Lowe, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, there is a big downside.
"It would do grave damage to the 4th Amendment" guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure, she said. "It sort of flips on its head this notion that you are innocent until proven guilty."
From the other end of the political spectrum, Connor Boyack, of the libertarian Libertas Institute, spoke against the bill, urging lawmakers to at least strip class A misdemeanors from the automatic DNA sampling crimes in the bill.
Among offenses in that category, he said, are things such as stalking, failure to stop at the command of an officer and participating in an ultimate fighting match.
Current Utah law requires that DNA swabs be taken from those convicted of a felony or class A misdemeanor and, for those accused of certain felonies, at the time of arrest. Those pre-conviction felonies covered in the law include violent crimes, hit-and-run accidents resulting in death, possession of a weapon of mass destruction and bribes of or retaliation against a judge, among others.
Eliason said he had for some time planned to expand the pre-conviction DNA sampling catalogue of crimes but wanted to wait until the legality of doing so was settled.
That happened in May when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in a Maryland case that it was constitutional for police to take DNA samples from those arrested but not yet convicted. Many believe the legal green light will lead to vast expansion of law-enforcement databases, including the world's largest the FBI CODIS, which holds information on more than 11 million convicted or suspected criminals, according to The Associated Press.
But in Utah, at least for now, lawmakers are reluctant to plunge ahead without more thought to the possible pitfalls.