Gov. Martin O'Malley's bid to expand collection of DNA samples from criminal suspects is sparking intense debate in Annapolis, with black lawmakers so upset they walked out of a Democratic caucus meeting in protest.
With objections from both ends of the political spectrum, the House of Delegates postponed debate on the bill until tomorrow.
"This issue is very emotional with many people," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat. He declined to discuss what took place at the closed-door caucus, but added: "There's hardly anything more personal than your genetic information."
The House Judiciary Committee approved the administration's DNA bill late Friday, but with significant amendments that would delay the collection and analysis of the samples taken from suspects. It also provided for automatic expungement of the information in some cases if charges are dropped.
But critics in both parties say they remain concerned about the measure, fearing it could infringe on people's constitutional rights and might wind up costing far more than the administration has predicted.
"It's not a black issue," said Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat. "It's the American system of justice's presumption of innocence until proven guilty."
Many - though not all - members of the House Legislative Black Caucus contend that the administration bill is flawed and that an expanded DNA collection system could be used by authorities to target minorities.
O'Malley originally proposed collecting DNA samples from those arrested for violent crimes and burglary whether they are convicted or not, drawing wide support from law enforcement officials, who argued that it would be an invaluable tool for catching serial criminals and preventing rapes and murders. Eleven other states have similar DNA collection practices.
But in response to objections from civil libertarians and the black caucus, the administration agreed to amendments last week to limit collection to those accused of violent crimes and felony burglary - dropping misdemeanor burglary from the proposal. O'Malley aides also agreed to delay collection until after a suspect is charged, and not to process the sample until arraignment, which often occurs several weeks after arrest. Thousands of people a year are arrested but not charged, particularly in Baltimore City.
Another amendment would allow DNA samples to be destroyed if charges are dropped before arraignment. Anyone acquitted would also have the right to seek expungement of his sample.
But the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics say such changes do not address their fundamental objections - that such collection of personal information is intrusive and runs counter to the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.
Carter's concerns are shared, to a degree, by some Republicans. Howard County Del. Warren Miller said he's still uneasy about the bill's impact on civil liberties, though he said he's more comfortable now that it has been amended.
"My concern is just the fact that someone is accused of a crime doesn't mean they committed it," Miller said. He said he's also worried about the cost of expanding the database when the state is strapped for cash.
An expansion of the DNA data base proposed last year by a Republican lawmaker, which failed to pass, was estimated by legislative analysts to cost $7 million, Miller said. The governor included $1 million in his budget to handle the expansion he proposes.
Rick Abbruzzese, the governor's spokesman, declined to explain the differences in costs estimated by legislative analysts, but he said the governor's plan for expanding DNA collection is less sweeping than what was proposed in prior legislation.
"We're continuing to work with the Senate and House leadership and the members of the black caucus on their legitimate concerns," Abbruzzese said.
Even before yesterday's flare-up at the Democratic caucus, some black caucus members complained late last week that House leaders had refused their request to delay committee action on the bill until this week to give them more time to try to amend the measure.
"We've felt we've been disrespected by this body," said Carter.
Del. Joseph Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, defended its handling of the bill yesterday. He pointed out that the committee had hashed out amendments to the bill at length last week, first in a small work group with administration officials and critics, and then debated and voted on them in a full committee meeting late Friday afternoon that went on for more than two hours.
"We've dealt with every issue that's been raised," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore City Democrat who led the committee work group on the bill.
"I've seen when things were steamrollered down here," Rosenberg said. "And believe me, this wasn't." He pointed out that DNA samples also can be used to exonerate those wrongly accused of crimes.
The House black caucus is not unified on the bill. Three African-American lawmakers on the Judiciary committee voted for the amended bill, while Carter continued to oppose it.
Now, committee leaders say they hope to give everyone with concerns one last chance to suggest changes before bringing the measure up for a full-fledged debate tomorrow.