STAMFORD -- State lawmakers are considering collecting DNA samples from people arrested for felony offenses rather than waiting upon a conviction -- a practice critics say endangers civil rights and personal privacy, and legal experts say undermines the principle that defendants should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Supporters of the proposed bill, however, say expanding the statewide DNA database would help law enforcement link more and more criminals to unsolved crimes.
As it stands now, state law requires people convicted of a serious felony to give DNA samples to authorities, and they face further criminal charges if they refuse. As other states mull over or fully adopt expansions of DNA testing among those arrested for serious crimes, a handful of state lawmakers are introducing similar proposals in Connecticut.
"To me it's more analogous to being fingerprinted," said Democratic state Rep. Gerry Fox, of Stamford, the newly appointed House chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the state General Assembly. "Maybe it doesn't apply for every arrest, but for the more serious felonies."
Fox said the proposed bill will likely have a public hearing in March before the General Assembly in Hartford. Several other lawmakers, including Republican and Democrats, have proposed bills that would require collecting DNA samples after arrests on serious felony charges. That gives the measure bipartisan support, a departure from the opposition a similar bill received almost three years ago, when then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell introduced a measure to collect DNA samples upon arrest on felony charges.
Last month, state Sen. Robert Kane, R-Watertown, proposed a bill that would require collecting DNA samples upon the arrest of any felony, while two Democratic state senators, Gary Lebeau of East Hartford, and Gayle Slossberg of Milford, introduced similar proposals that would collect genetic information only after arrests on serious felony charges.
"We can catch more of these bad guys that are on the loose but also we can make sure we don't put innocent people in jail as well," Kane said. "If we have that DNA on file we can clear a lot of people as well. A lot of these crimes are committed by individuals who committed other types of crimes."
Connecticut's databank of DNA profiles began in 1993, when only those convicted of certain sexual assault offenses were included. In 2003, criminal defendants convicted of felonies were mandated to submit DNA samples. Four years ago, the state DNA databank had 20,000 offender profiles and just 400 unknown samples from crime scenes, according to data from the Department of Public Safety.
Now the state Department of Public Safety's forensic lab keeps nearly 80,000 genetic profiles of offenders on file, along with just under 2,500 samples from crime scenes, according to data from the FBI's Combined DNA Index System. To date, the state DNA databank aided in 907 criminal investigations, including several in Fairfield County.
Stephan Seeger, a criminal defense attorney in Stamford, said residents should closely monitor moves to expand the DNA databank, calling the proposed bills a "slippery slope" that could lead to DNA collection for minor offenses.
"To sacrifice that type of privacy interest based upon an arrest is not a good thing for civil rights," Seeger said. "Lots of people get arrested, and it doesn't mean that these are people that need to be in a database."
Seeger added that taking DNA samples after an arrest, rather than a conviction, circumvents a criminal defendant's presumption of innocence. While DNA evidence has led to the exoneration of prisoners wrongfully convicted of murders and other serious crimes, Seeger said the use of DNA evidence is not without a margin of error.
"The problem is there are a lot of innocent explanations," Seeger said. "DNA is the stuff of crime shows and movies, but the absence and presence of DNA has perfectly innocent explanations in many cases."
In Stamford, the use of DNA evidence routinely provides breaks in investigations ranging from bank robberies to murders to sexual assaults. Police Capt. Richard Conklin, the head of investigative units at the Stamford Police Department, said taking DNA samples after felony arrests would make the practice similar to taking fingerprints and more useful for investigators. What's more, the state DNA databank is linked to a federal index, allowing law enforcement agencies from all over the nation to cross reference offender profiles and seek matches for unsolved crimes.
"DNA is probably the biggest advance in forensics since the fingerprint," Conklin said. "The downside of it is the databases aren't populated right now. It becomes so much more of a useful tool once you populate the databases."
As the technology improves -- investigators can now collect genetic material from bodily fluids and sweat found on objects touched by potential suspects -- Conklin said he expects the role of DNA evidence in criminal investigation to keep growing.
"It has come a long way and I expect it to go further," Conklin said.
This doesn't sit right with me. What do you all think?