Individuals arrested for serious crimes would be required to submit DNA samples under a bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-9). His bill will also authorize a new type of DNA search, helping law enforcement officials identify suspects in unsolved crimes.
“We need to make the best possible use of the rapidly evolving science of DNA evidence to help fight crime and ensure public safety,” Pileggi said. “That’s not happening right now, and as a result criminals are going free and innocent people are in jail. That’s unacceptable.”
Sen. Pileggi’s legislation, which will be introduced this week as Senate Bill 775, will expand the list of criminal offenses for which DNA testing is required. It will also authorize the state police to use modified DNA searches to assist investigators in identifying unknown crime-scene DNA profiles that contain enough common characteristics to indicate that the source of the crime-scene profile could be a close relative of an offender whose profile is already in the database.
Passage of this legislation will put Pennsylvania “in the forefront of modern DNA database legislation,” said David H. Kaye, Distinguished Professor and Weiss Family Scholar at Penn State University’s Dickinson School of Law, and a member of the graduate faculty for Penn State’s Forensic Science program.
Chris Asplen, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Executive Director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, said the overall impact of Senate Bill 775 “will be measured in people’s lives.” He said 24 other states already collect DNA from arrested individuals.
“Allowing police to take DNA at arrest, as they do with fingerprints, simply allows police to begin to leverage our most powerful forensic tool at an earlier and thus more important part of an investigation,” said Asplen, who is also the former director of the DNA Unit for the National District Attorney’s Association and a former senior deputy district attorney in Bucks County. “In doing so, they protect more victims from attack and more innocent individuals from wrongful arrest and conviction.”
Jayann Sepich, founder of the national nonprofit organization DNA Saves, has been working to have similar legislation enacted across the country. In 2003, her daughter – a 22-year-old graduate student at New Mexico State University – was raped and murdered.
“She had skin and blood from her attacker under her fingernails,” Sepich said. “But in New Mexico at that time, you could not take DNA from individuals upon arrest so the value of that evidence was significantly reduced. It made no sense to me.”
Sepich successfully advocated for a law in New Mexico to allow authorities to take a DNA sample from arrestees – an unobtrusive process which involves lightly swabbing the inside of an individual’s cheek.
“I’ve seen this work,” she said. “One hour and 14 minutes after that law went into effect, the first arrestee in New Mexico was swabbed. He was later identified as a suspect in a double murder, for which he was later convicted. We are bringing horrible monsters to justice who we might not otherwise be able to identify. What that means to me is that there are other mothers who won’t have to bury their daughters.”
The modified DNA searches will assist investigators in identifying crime-scene DNA samples from relatives of individuals already in the statewide database. Several other states, including California, Colorado and Virginia, now use similar DNA searches.
A modified search can help identify a crime-scene DNA profile that does not precisely match a profile already in the state DNA database, but does contain enough common characteristics to indicate that the source of the crime-scene profile could be a close relative of an offender whose profile is in the database. A modified search will analyze the rarity and pattern of common DNA characteristics and use other techniques to identify potential relatives.
Senate Bill 775 will allow the name of the offender already in the database to be released to law enforcement officials – under certain conditions – to allow further investigation into whether or not a relative was the source of the crime-scene DNA sample.
“There is no question that Pennsylvania’s DNA laws need to be modernized to help fight crime,” said Senator Pileggi. “At the same time, we must address the legitimate privacy concerns associated with the broader use of DNA profiles, and my legislation also does that.”
The legislation will require the automatic purging of DNA records for exonerated individuals and prohibit the use of records in the state DNA database for research into genetic markers.
The legislation will also require that forensic DNA testing laboratories used by Pennsylvania law enforcement officials are accredited in compliance with national standards, and that the personnel at forensic DNA testing laboratories undergo mandatory continuing education.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-12), is holding a public hearing on DNA issues – including Senator Pileggi’s legislation – on Friday, March 18, at 9:30 a.m. in the Independence Visitor Center, 6th and Market Streets, Philadelphia.