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Bill would expand DNA data bank

Youthful, misdemeanor offenders would be included in testing under law

May 22, 2006 New York State Senate and Assembly members, with the endorsement of Gov. George Pataki, have introduced bills to expand the DNA databank to include people convicted of all misdemeanors and felonies, as well as youthful offenders.

Called the All-Crimes DNA Bill, anyone convicted of a felony, misdemeanor or youthful offense under the state penal code would be required to submit a sample of their Deoxyribonucleic Acid, commonly known as DNA. After collection, officials would enter the information into a statewide databank that could be used to link suspects to a crime.

Sam Peter Furniture and Bedding     
According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, only 20 crimes listed in the state's penal code require a DNA sample under current law. Expanding the databank could reduce the amount of time necessary to find possible suspects.
“For example, someone is arrested for burglary, and we run it against an unsolved crime, and we find this person was involved with a rape,” said Chauncey Parker, director of DCJS. “A number of crimes were probably prevented. Right now, we're limited to how we can collect DNA.”

Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said the proposed legislation would cast a wide net, and its implications need to be weighed before it is implemented. Wilkinson, who is still researching the bill's potential effects, said she is concerned about the sweeping inclusiveness of the legislation.

“You have to balance the legitimate need to keep the community safe against the individual privacy rights guaranteed under our state and federal constitutions,” she said in an interview Saturday.

“And I think people need to be aware that the collection of DNA would significantly expand the amount of information the government possessed about people who had committed any type of crime. The question has to be asked, ‘Does the person who steals a pack of gum forfeit the same right of privacy extended to a person who commits crimes like rape, murder or other violent crimes?' These are important questions, and people who are concerned about the issue need to be aware of the kinds of liberty interests and right-to-privacy interests at stake here.”

Between 1999 and 2002, similar Senate bills have been introduced three times, each time approved by senators but not introduced in the Assembly. From the 2003 through 2006 terms, Assembly bills were also introduced, only to die or stall in committees. According to the New York State Senate Web site, Bill S.1018 remains in the Senate Finance Committee while A.8676 has been referred to the Assembly Codes Committee.

State Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-54th District, and a member of the finance committee, called DNA “the technology of today.”

“DNA is the most technologically current identifying tool that's available,” Nozzolio said. “We should utilize that as aggressively as possible.”

Provisions of the legislation include creating an “innocence project” using DNA to free the wrongfully convicted, and another provision to eliminate the statute of limitations on crimes with DNA evidence.

“It cuts both ways,” Nozzolio said. “On the one hand, we're using DNA to solve rape cases that have long been in the cold case files. At the same time, we're seeing convictions that were questionable and freeing individuals convicted unfairly.”

At $25 per sample for processing, expanding the collection could prove costly for New York taxpayers. Criminal labs located throughout the state process and catalogue the samples sent from local law enforcement agencies. In Tompkins County, most of the sample collection takes place at the county jail on Warren Road. Nozzolio did not identify additional revenue sources for the proposed DNA databank expansion.

“There has been increasing support from the Senate and the governor's office,” Nozzolio said.

Parker said Pataki has pledged more resources to the project, though its impact on county government spending remains unclear.

“The governor added $20 million to enhance the labs' ability to process DNA, hire the best chemists, and make sure law enforcement and prosecutors have the best training for it,” Parker said. “When people talk about cost, what is the cost of something we could do to solve crimes and protect people this is going to save money. Imagine if we could protect people after the first crime.”

Parker said the larger databank project could be eligible for increased federal funding.

“We will also get grants with the federal government's help,” he said.

On May 15, the New York Civil Liberties Union came out against the expanded project, citing local medical examiners who could collect DNA from people not labeled crime suspects, and “rogue databases.” The NYCLU did not specifically state where the facilities could be found.

In a prepared statement, Robert A. Perry, legislative director for NYCLU, said problems have cropped up across the country with expanded databanks like the one proposed by lawmakers.

“Adding many thousands of DNA samples to state databanks can and has compromised the integrity, efficiency and accuracy of DNA labs,” Perry said. “The Legislature needs to understand the susceptibility of DNA science to human error and abuse before it contemplates the data banking of persons convicted of shoplifting, vandalism or trespassing.”

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