On the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the collection of DNA from suspects before conviction, a bill proposed in 2011 that would expand the practice in Pennsylvania has passed the state Senate and moved to the House.
The bill, sponsored by State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, would substantially increase the number of DNA samples collected by law enforcement. It would “build up a massive DNA database,” according to Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. The police would automatically collect the DNA of anyone arrested for a felony or certain misdemeanors.
Even in cases where the investigation does not require any collection of DNA, these suspects would still be added to the database. Their samples would then be used in investigations of all existing unsolved crimes. One person’s DNA could also be used to check the match of a relative’s DNA.“Essentially they are permanent suspects,” said Hoover.
Pileggi hopes the Supreme Court decision will relieve constitutionality concerns and allow the bill to pass through the House this time. But questions on its cost and effectiveness that were raised in 2011 still remain. “This bill will make dramatic improvements in how Pennsylvania uses DNA technology to fight crime, to get violent criminals off our streets, and to make our communities safer,” Pileggi said in a statement.
But given the resources, it’s not clear collecting that much data would actually help. Though the bill’s estimated cost is under $2.5 million, Pennsylvania Police Commissioner Frank Noonan testified in 2011 that such widespread DNA sampling could cost $13 million and force the DNA laboratories to process five times more cases.
In fact, in a recent Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, he said the laboratories are filled up to capacity. He warned that processing more cases could create such a long backlog — already at 237 days — that “they’re not effective. “We cannot put another piece of equipment or another examiner in there,” he said.
The bill would at least allow individuals who were exonerated or acquitted to get expunged from the database. Nevertheless, according to Hoover, it is “in clear violation of constitutional principle that we have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.”
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