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DNA Registry Would Help Solve Crimes in Pennsylviania, Police, Prosecutors Say

Senate Bill 150 would require police to collect a DNA sample from suspects arrested for any felony and for misdemeanors requiring registration as a sex offender.

DNA from criminal suspects arrested in Pennsylvania could be put into a state computer database if law enforcement interests trump privacy concerns during the upcoming legislative discussion.

The state House of Representatives is considering Senate Bill 150, which would require police to collect a DNA sample from suspects arrested for any felony and for misdemeanors requiring registration as a sex offender. The legislation has touched off a debate that pits individual privacy concerns against a desire among law enforcement officials to track potential offenders.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said his proposal would put Pennsylvania on par with more than two dozen states that have expanded their forensic DNA databases in hope of solving more crimes.

"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," he said.

Pennsylvania collects DNA from individuals convicted of felonies.

Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said Pennsylvania's proposed expansion might not withstand legal scrutiny.

"It's questionable whether or not something this broad would be constitutional," he said.

Patrick Livingston, a Pittsburgh-area criminal defense attorney with about 30 years of experience, said DNA collected upon arrest could be "jumping the gun." No burden of proof would be required before the DNA was taken, and it could be used in court as evidence in a way that otherwise may require a warrant, he said.

"It raises, in my mind, a lot of administrative headaches in the garden variety case that gets reduced or dismissed," he said.

The Supreme Court upheld a Maryland law in June allowing pre-conviction DNA collection with a 5-4 decision.

Hoover said the Pennsylvania proposal would collect DNA for more crimes than Maryland's statute.

The Pennsylvania Senate passed the bill, 38-9, two weeks after the high court's decision. The House Judiciary Committee conducted hearings and advanced the bill to the full House.

"It can really have an opportunity to prevent some really horrific, violent crimes throughout this Commonwealth, and those tools are there, and they've been deemed to be constitutional," Bruce Beemer, a chief deputy from the attorney general's office, told the committee.

Law enforcement agencies and victim rights groups support the bill, including the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

Pileggi said he wants to see the legislation on Gov. Tom Corbett's desk before the end of the fiscal year in June. But Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, said there's no plan to put the bill up for a vote because many members oppose it on privacy concerns.

Similar legislation failed to pass the House in 2012.

Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Greensburg, was one of two votes in committee against the bill. He said he'd prefer to see the state expand DNA collection to people convicted of theft.

"I'm open to look into something like that, as long as we can address both the cost issue and constitutional privacy, freedom, liberty issues," he said.

DNA samples are processed at the Pennsylvania State Police lab in Greensburg, which also processes criminal evidence from across the state.

Beth Ann Marne, director of the forensic DNA division, said the lab in 2013 linked more than 500 DNA samples to convicted offenders and processes about 25,000 samples a year. Upon-arrest collection would add 60,000 samples a year, requiring staff and space.

Officials at the state House hearing said state police would need $6.9 million a year to hire about 30 staffers, and $29 million to build a new facility.

Pileggi said even if the state did not expand collection, it needs to upgrade its system. As a result of widespread use of DNA, the lab's staff has doubled to 50 in the past three years.

"As technology changes, there needs to be an increase of resources," he said.

(c)2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)