RI Legislators Push for Criminal DNA Sampling in Violent Crimes
Friday, May 03, 2013
August 2013 will mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Katie Sepich a college student who was brutally murdered in New Mexico. It took three years for the case to be solved and the murderer brought to justice. The Sepich family felt that Katie’s murderer would have been caught sooner had the police taken DNA evidence from him during prior felony arrests.
The proposed Rhode Island legislation reads:
“Many states have enacted laws requiring persons arrested for or convicted of a crime of violence, or persons convicted of any felony, sexual and violent offenses to provide genetic samples for DNA profiling. Moreover, it is the policy of this state to assist federal, state and local criminal justice and law enforcement agencies in the identification and detection of individuals in criminal investigations.”
The legislation recommends DNA sampling of any individual convicted of a felony, any crime of violence, or sexual and violent offenses, as defined in the general laws of Rhode Island.
The Sepich family worked with legislators across the country and have established the nonprofit, DNAsaves.org to assist in getting Katie’s law passed in every state.
“States have been collecting DNA from convicted felons for almost two decades, and it’s helped solve thousands of crimes. But, we can do more,” said a statement on the website. “By passing arrestee DNA legislation, law enforcement officials can catch criminals sooner, prevent crimes, save more lives and use DNA to its full potential. Collected at the same time as fingerprints, DNA testing only requires a simple cheek swab upon arrest. That’s why Congress and over half the states have already passed laws for DNA Arrestee Testing.”
“Katie’s law has already passed in twenty-six (26) states,” said Jayann Sepich mother of Katie and advocate for arrest DNA sampling. “Legislation was passed in the Nevada senate just last week,” she said. “We are seeing incredible success across the country with getting Katie’s law passed. The state of California is now seeing ten (10) matches a day in their own DNA database.”
Sepich has travelled to Rhode Island and testified before general assembly committees every year since 2010.
“In Rhode Island there is a very small handful of legislators who are uncomfortable with DNA collection,” said Sepich. “There were some people in Rhode Island objecting to the law on the basis of unconstitutionality. There is nothing unconstitutional. It is before the U.S. Supreme Court now and we expect to have their decision by the end of June,” she said.
Representative Brian Patrick Kennedy (D-Distr. 38), sponsor of the House bill, H5205 has lent his support to moving the legislation forward according to Sepich.
“I started sponsoring this bill several years ago,” said Represenatative Kennedy. “The first time I had the opportunity to hear her, I was at the National Conference of Insurance Legislators. Her story was amazing to hear as she told us all about what had happened with her daughter Katie.”
“As far as Katie’s law goes, the Senate has been passing the bill for several years now. We managed to get the bill out of committee in the waning days of the 2012 legislative session. Unfortunately on the last night of the session, and within the last hours of the session, it was recommitted back to the Judiciary Committee much to my disappointment,” he said. “Twenty-five states have already enacted Katie’s law, mandating that a DNA sample be taken at the time of arrest for certain crimes. Congress has enacted a law that a sample be taken in arrests for all federal crimes.”
"When Jayann Sepich was here in 2012, she spoke to the judiciary committee and she mentioned that a DNA profile contains only thirteen (13) markers out of over three billion that are found in a DNA strand. The thirteen markers were specifically selected by the genetic scientists because they have no potential whatsoever to disclose any medical, diagnostic information, nor any private genetic information about the individual," said Kennedy. "There's no way it could be misused regarding who that individual happens to be."
Federal funds are available to support the program.
"There are federal funds available for a limited time to help states on a first come, first serve basis to move forward with the implemenatation of this particular issue," he said. "I remain hopeful that this will be the year that we get this bill through. I think it would be good for the state of Rhode Island."
In January, President Obama signed the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act of 2012 into law. The law further defines the DNA arrestee collection process and provides for grant funding to states to assist with the costs associated with implementation of the DNA database process.
“Both Representative Kennedy and Senator Bates have helped us in Rhode Island,” Sepich said. “They’ve been very supportive, as has Rhode Island law enforcement. The police chiefs association has spoken with us, too.”
“I’m hoping that Rhode Island will come on board. We have had tremendous support from the Rhode Island Senate. “The DNA sampling process not only helps identify criminals, but it assists in exonerating individuals who have been wrongly accused. Many individuals have been cleared of charges due to DNA sampling,” she said.
Senator David E. Bates sponsored Katie’s Law legislation on the Senate side. The legislation passed in Senate Judiciary and has not moved to the Senate floor for a full vote as yet.
“The Senate passed the bill five times already and I expect it to be passed again,” said Senator Bates. “I believe the push back has been from the House judiciary on privacy issues they have with the bill. The issues that they are putting forth are not sound for several reasons. First, if the DNA is on file from a prior criminal act and there is a match, the match triggers another sampling. The match serves as an indicator to prompt further action,“ he said.
Privacy concerns argument is unfounded.
“The thing that bothers me about the privacy issue is that the police take the cheek swab sample and then it is coded,” he said. “There are a series of numbers attached to the sample and no personal information is shown. The only information that can be seen is whether the individual is a male or female.”
Bates compared cheek swab sampling and data collection to fingerprinting done in arrest processing procedures.
“In the case of any arrest, fingerprints are taken. The individual’s information is recorded on the fingerprint card, including name, address, social security number and several key pieces of personal information. The individual’s privacy is protected more in the case of DNA sampling than in the traditional fingerprinting.”
“The arrest DNA sampling has also served to clear many individuals accused of criminal wrongdoing. There is also opportunity for expungement. If a sample has been taken and the individual is cleared of criminal activity, all information can be expunged and removed from state and federal databases.
The Senator expressed the need for a joint effort to get the legislation through the House.
“I talked to Rep. Kennedy last night. We are working together to get this passed.”