Connecticut’s new DNA testing law is either a plot line from a Philip Dick novel or a novel way to combat crime.
Effective Friday, anyone arrested for any of 39 felonies must provide a DNA sample before he or she is released from custody. Samples will only be taken from those with prior felony convictions and from those who have never before provided a DNA sample. And while opponents contend the law tramples on civil liberties, supporters say it could solve cold cases, prevent future crimes and even exonerate the innocent.
“It can free the innocent and catch the guilty. DNA is the fingerprinting of the 21st century,” said state Rep. John Hetherington, a Republican representing New Canaan and Norwalk in the 125th House District.
State Rep. Ernie Hewett, a Democrat representing New London in the 39th House District, hailed the new law. He became convinced after hearing the testimony of Jayann Sepich, the mother of Katie Sepich.
Connecticut’s new law resembles “Katie’s Law,” so named for Katie Sepich. The 22-year-old was raped, strangled to death, burned and left in a dumpsite near her New Mexico home in 2003. She fought her killer and had blood and skin under her nails.
Sepich’s killer was caught three years later after New Mexico’s DNA database matched his profile. He had been convicted of several other crimes. Jayann Sepich testified that had New Mexico had DNA testing earlier, her daughter might still be alive.
That doesn’t satisfy the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization said DNA and fingerprints are not at all similar. While both are unique, DNA contains some of the most private information about a person; their genetic code.
“This is private information about you that should not be made available to the police or the government,” said Andrew Schneider, ACLU-CT executive director, in testimony last spring. “The risk that these samples might be accessed and used in controversial research (for example on human behaviors such as aggression substance addiction or criminal tendency) or in other sinister ways remains so long as those samples remain on file.”
Connecticut is the 25th state to mandate DNA samples, which will be entered into a federal DNA database. This is the first time the state will collect samples upon arrest. The state has collected DNA samples of those convicted of serious felonies for several years.
A co-sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, a Republican representing Fairfield in the 132nd House District, acknowledged those concerns, saying that DNA bills are often controversial.
However, Kupchik said to her it’s simply a matter of safety.
“It’s not like you’ll be pulled over for a DUI and have a sample taken,” Kupchick said. “This is for serious felonies. This is a good bill. It is giving law enforcement the tools to do their jobs. People will feel safer and feel something worthy is being done.”
The addition of the requirement that arrestees had previous felony convictions convinced some legislators who originally opposed the bill.
Also, under the law, the Department of Public Safety's Division of Scientific Services must expunge a DNA profile from the DNA data bank and the State Police forensic laboratory must also purge all such information.
Aside from concerns the law violates the presumption of innocence, there are concerns the law violates the Fourth Amendment, Article 1, Section 7, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
“I did not support the bill, either in the Appropriations Committee or on the House Floor,” said Rep. Betsy Ritter, a Democrat representing Montville and Waterford in the 38th House District. “My concerns were, and still are, around privacy protections. I spent a lot time discussing the bill with my colleagues who were advocates for it, but I was not able to put my concerns aside. I will be following it as time goes on.”
Ritter and other legislators who oppose the bill also worry that private information about people who are accused of a crime, but not convicted of one, will be entered into police and federal databases.
Hetherington isn’t worried about improper use of the data.
“Because there was so much concern from a civil liberties standpoint it was passed with the restriction that only those with prior felony convictions give a sample,” Hetherington said. “I’m not sure I agree with that but it’s a start. It’s a good bill.”
While the Connecticut Conference on Municipalities supported the bill, it was concerned it will become an unfunded mandate since towns and cities have to provide the DNA kits.
Also, the Department of Public Safety cautioned the General Assembly saying that it needs substantial funding to help move cases through the Connecticut Forensic Lab.
Based on the 2009 Connecticut Crime Index there were more than 9,175 criminal arrests for serious felonies in state. If that number stays the same, the lab would need 5 more examiner positions and clerical position to process and maintain DNA tests and files.
David Cameron, a political science professor at Yale University, testified on behalf of the bill.
He said it could help overturn wrongful convictions, as case of James Tillman who served 18 years on rape charges before DNA exonerated him. Cameron also said the law would help crack unsolved crimes in which there is biological evidence from an unknown source.