Critics of DNA plan blasted

The Baltimore Sun

A top aide to Gov. Martin O'Malley lashed out yesterday at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland for what he called "irresponsible" and "intentionally inflammatory" comments about a new program for collecting DNA samples from crime suspects.

Chief legislative officer Joseph C. Bryce appeared before a legislative committee to address criticism raised last month by the ACLU of Maryland, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Legislative Black Caucus over proposed regulations governing the state's expanded DNA-collection system, which goes into effect in January.

Critics of the regulations reiterated concerns that the Maryland State Police did not write rules that fulfill promises of strict oversight made by the O'Malley administration during negotiations with black lawmakers this year.

The new law, which the O'Malley administration has called a critical crime-fighting tool, allows DNA samples to be taken from those charged with violent crimes and burglary. Previously, samples were taken only after a conviction.

Black lawmakers have expressed privacy concerns and worries that a DNA criminal-suspect database would disproportionately contain information about African-Americans and other minorities.

"These regulations do not 'run roughshod' over the bill," Bryce told members of the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, which oversees regulations, though it does not have authority to overturn them. "These regulations are consistent with the law and in no way breach the agreement reached with the [black] caucus."

Last month, the ACLU of Maryland and the state NAACP claimed the regulations violated the spirit and letter of the bill, and allowed DNA samples to be collected when a person is arrested even if he or she hasn't been charged. The regulations also "invite the use of force to obtain DNA samples," the civil rights groups charged.

Under the regulations, a criminal suspect can have his DNA taken only if charged with a violent crime or burglary, though the rules define a "charge" to include a "written accusation." The ACLU demanded that provision be limited.

Leigh Williams, an attorney for the black caucus, challenged a part of the regulation allowing DNA collection at the time of booking. Because bookings can occur before charges are filed, the rule could encourage illegal sampling, Williams said.

It remains unclear whether the wording will be changed.

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