House OKs bill to let police collect DNA from suspects

The Baltimore Sun

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would allow police to collect DNA samples from criminal suspects, though the O'Malley administration plan was amended to ease black lawmakers' concerns about how the biological fingerprints might be used.

House members approved the bill on a voice vote, ending three days of intense negotiations that at one point prompted African-American delegates to walk out of a Democratic caucus meeting in protest. The Senate is scheduled to take up the bill Monday.

A top priority of Gov. Martin O'Malley, the bill would allow police to collect DNA samples from those charged with violent crimes and burglary; currently, samples are taken after a conviction. Eleven other states have similar laws, and state and local law enforcement authorities say adopting the bill would help them catch more serial offenders and prevent crimes.

In an effort to ease concerns of civil libertarians, the bill had already been amended by the Judiciary Committee to narrow its scope and to provide for automatic expunction of DNA samples in some cases.

But members of the Legislative Black Caucus sought even more changes to ensure that DNA samples are not kept in the state's database if the suspect is not convicted and to facilitate the use of newly collected or analyzed DNA evidence to overturn false convictions.

Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, the black caucus secretary who coordinated the group's negotiations, said she was "very pleased" with the amendments. She predicted that the vast majority of the House's 32 African-American members would support the bill when it comes up for final vote today or early next week.

Key senators met with O'Malley's aides yesterday to determine whether to accept the House's amendments. Rejecting them could lead to a contentious cross-chamber debate.

Braveboy, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the caucus wanted to make sure the expanded DNA database would be used to help exonerate those wrongly accused as well as to catch more criminals.

"Our interest was to create the balance," she said.

While DNA evidence may be a great tool for police and prosecutors, she said, "it should be used to its fullest extent, which includes both finding and convicting people who are guilty and making sure police aren't arresting the wrong people and keeping them in jail for inordinate amounts of time - and also making sure that people who are innocent are let go."

One change adopted by the House would require that a suspect's DNA sample be destroyed and the information about it expunged from the database within 60 days if the charge or charges do not result in a conviction. The bill previously allowed for automatic expunction only if charges were dropped before arraignment - otherwise, a cleared suspect would have to apply to get the sample removed.

Another change would provide for post-conviction review of DNA evidence that might not have been available at trial - opening the door for new trials in cases in which the DNA undercuts an earlier conviction.

A third change provides for a suspect to request a prompt comparison of his or her DNA sample with DNA swabs taken at a crime scene to see if they match.

Several delegates questioned the changes, voicing fears that they could help criminals evade capture. Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Baltimore County Republican, asked why a suspect's DNA would be expunged when a case falls apart even if his or her fingerprints are not removed from police records.

"I'm more willing to side on the side of victims of crime," Impallaria said.

But Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary panel, defended the changes, saying they "make it favorable for the victim and also make it fair."

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland and a co-sponsor of the bill, questioned whether the state can afford to expand the database while it is struggling fiscally. But Vallario said he doubted the changes made in the bill altered the original cost estimate of about $1 million.

Some civil libertarians remain opposed to the bill, arguing that it would allow for a search without a warrant before a defendant is convicted. Cindy Boersma, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the governor's bill would give "blanket permission" to take DNA without having to defend that action before a judge.

"The warrant is the guarantee that there's a legitimate reason to intrude into our personal privacy and take highly personal information from us without our consent," Boersma said.

Virginia courts have upheld a similar law in that state.

The Senate had been scheduled to begin debate on the bill yesterday but postponed consideration until Monday so that lawmakers could review changes made in the House.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and the state's first black Senate president pro tem, said those changes might satisfy some members of the black caucus in his chamber, though not all of them. Nonetheless, he predicted the Senate would pass the bill.

"I told the governor I would work with him," McFadden said.

But Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and a public defender, said she remained opposed to the bill. She has said that mostly young, African-American men would be targeted for DNA collection.

"I can't imagine the amendment that would make it OK," she said.

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