Senate panel OKs ‘Katie’s Law’ to collect DNA on all felony arrests

(Photo/gravitywave, Flickr)

(Photo/gravitywave, Flickr)

A state Senate panel late Wednesday evening approved a bill to require law enforcement officials to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony in Colorado, over strong objections from one lawmaker who said “Katie’s Law” — named after a New Mexico college student whose brutal rape and murder was solved using DNA evidence — does “permanent damage” to constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

“There are great costs and consequences in not passing this law,” Jayann Sepich, the mother of the law’s namesake, told the Senate Judiciary Committee after displaying slides of her slain daughter, Katie Sepich.

Sepich has been traveling the country urging states to pass similar laws since New Mexico adopted it in 2006. So far, 16 states now require suspected felons to give DNA samples upon arrest.

Proponents claim having more samples on file in a federal database gives law enforcement officials a better chance of matching DNA evidence found at crime scenes. They also say the bill will save investigators money, as they’ll be able to rule out some suspects whose DNA doesn’t match evidence, and that innocent convicts are freed from prison when perpetrators are found through DNA matches.

Every state, including Colorado, requires DNA samples from convicted felons – and that’s the rub, with opponents of the law arguing it’s contrary to the Fourth Amendment to gather and store genetic material from those who aren’t eventually convicted.

“This bill flies in the face of the fundamental right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Cathryn L. Hazouri, executive director of the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the committee.

Under Senate Bill 241, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. John Morse, a former police chief of Fountain, suspects would render a DNA sample — taken by a swab inside the cheek, by force if necessary — at the same time they’re photographed and fingerprinted.

The bill’s supporters argued the genetic sample — which is retained by law enforcement officials for further, corroborative testing — works the same as photographs and fingerprints, simply identifying suspects.

But opponents disagree. “It is not a fingerprint. This contains your past, your present, and your future,” Hazouri testified.

State Sen. Morgan Carroll, an Aurora Democrat, made an impassioned plea to reject the bill without added safeguards — based on a version of Katie’s Law adopted in Maryland recently — and wound up casting the lone vote against it after several restrictive amendments failed to gain enough support.

“The only way this works is if we assume they’re guilty and we haven’t proven it yet,” Carroll said. Moments later, acknowledging the bill was likely to pass out of committee, Carroll delivered a scathing assessment of the proposed law. “I think we have really done damage — probably permanent damage — to everything we hold dear in the Constitution,” she said.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey estimated prosecutors don’t even file felony charges against 40 percent of those arrested on felonies in Denver each year — which would mean as many as 24,000 people a year in Colorado would give DNA samples and then have to petition authorities to remove their genetic markers from a federal database, according to estimates from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Two Republican members of the committee, Sens. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud and Scott Renfroe of Greeley, notably among the chamber’s most conservative, joined Carroll in questioning the bill’s requirement that those who are arrested but ultimately not convicted of felonies — either because prosecutors don’t file felony charges or they’re found not guilty in court — bear the burden of asking the state to remove their DNA from the database. In the end, however, both Lundberg and Renfroe voted to approve bill after Morse promised he’d work on their objections before it comes to a vote of the full Senate.

The bill moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Morse said he would try to come up with a way to pay for its estimated $1.7 million cost.

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Ernest Luning

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