News Column

DNA Samples for Felons Debated

Jan 25, 2013

Trevor Brown

Katie's Law

A proposed state law could force people who are charged with certain felonies to provide their DNA to the state and have their information stored in a government database.

The state House's Judiciary Committee began debate Thursday on House Bill 204, which is known as "Katie's Law." The panel is expected to vote Monday to decide whether to send the bill to the House floor.

Some 26 other states have implemented forms of Katie's Law in the past five years.

The legislation is named after Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old New Mexico resident who was killed in 2003. Her family has since pushed for stronger DNA laws nationwide.

They contend that the man eventually linked to Sepich's death would have been arrested sooner if authorities had collected his DNA when he was previously arrested.

Rep. Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, said he is sponsoring the bill because he doesn't want to see Wyoming become a safe haven for violent criminals.

"If we have these modern technologies, and we have concerns over the safety of our citizens, my question is: Why are we not using them?" he asked.

Current law requires DNA samples to be collected from people who are jailed on felony charges. The proposal would expand this to anyone arrested for homicide, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, stalking or a sex-related crime.

Esquibel said one of the previous obstacles of making this happen was getting funding. But a federal bill signed into law earlier this month offers to pay states' for upfront costs in complying with the more stringent DNA requirements.

Steven Woodson, director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, said ongoing costs to the state would be minimal.

The proposal also was backed by Wyoming County and Prosecuting Attorney's Association.

Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar, representing that group, said DNA identification is easy to obtain and would give law enforcement officials an important tool.

"It is no more invasive that fingerprinting, which is done already right now," he said.

But other groups argued that collecting DNA is different than taking someone's fingerprints.

Tom Jubin with the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association said it is also important to note that DNA samples would be taken from people who have not been convicted of a crime.

"That means that people who are presumed innocent, their private information would reside in the hands of the government n both the state government and the federal government," he said.

"It's a policy question for (lawmakers) to decide whether you want people, (arrested) simply based on an accusation, to have that private information be in the hands of the federal government."

Linda Burt with the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said she also is troubled by the bill.

"It turns the whole idea of being innocent before proven guilty on its head," she said. "Basically, what we are doing is saying: If we are arrest you, you are guilty, and we can take this most private information.

"Although it is very easy to take this information, it is the most private information we have about ourselves. It tells everything about ourselves, including our genetic history." The bill includes a process for people not convicted of the crime to request that their DNA information is expunged. But Burt said that must be requested and the government could decline.

"If I'm an innocent person and they don't expunge this information, then what we have is officials keeping a database on individual people, not criminals, but individual citizens in the county or in the city," she said.

Committee members said the language on how records would be expunged is an issue they will look at when they meet again on Monday.


Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c) 2013 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

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