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Friday
Apr112008

Maryland DNA Bill Convicts Before Trial

The Examiner

Innocents and criminals alike, watch out. Starting next year, if you are charged with a violent crime, police will sample your DNA to enter into a database of offenders.

Gov. Martin O’Malley hailed the legislation authorizing the taking of genetic evidence as “our top public safety priority.” For whom? The government or those it serves?

How it does not pole-vault over constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure puzzles us.

DNA is no fingerprint or photograph. It is a sophisticated identification system that needs no witnesses to corroborate and is more accurate than fingerprints when — if — the people storing and analyzing the data work right.

It also treats those charged as if they were criminals before a court reviews their cases. How does that mesh with “innocent until proven guilty”?

The new legislation requires law enforcement to automatically expunge data if those charged are not convicted. And it prohibits using the database to track down relatives of a person charged with a crime.

But how can we know procedure will be followed when computer systems are not fully integrated? And what will stop those using the database from making improper searches? Will there be a fire wall and/or tracking software to monitor users? And who will be monitoring the monitors? Remember Joseph Kopera, a state police forensics expert who killed himself following allegations he lied about his education, opening up a slate of convictions to legal challenges?

We are thankful that the original version of the legislation, which called for taking DNA samples upon arrest, did not pass. That would have meant thousands more people would have been entered into the database for no good reason other than an officer’s decision to detain them.

But the change provides small comfort.

Without knowing how many people will be charged with violent crimes next year, we cannot accurately estimate the human and financial burden of processing and managing the samples. The fiscal policy note on the legislation simply says “potentially significant.”

The state could avoid both the civil liberties conflicts and financial burden by reverting back next year to the previous law permitting the collection of DNA only from convicted felons. Technological advances are no excuse to trample the rights of Maryland’s citizens.

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