ANNAPOLIS — A bill to allow officers to take a sample of DNA from people charged with certain violent crimes is close to passage in the Maryland General Assembly, despite fears that it could infringe on those people’s rights.
Among the critics is the NAACP. In Frederick County, NAACP chapter president Guy Djoken said he is concerned.
He points to analyses of local data, including The Frederick New-Post’s March 2007 StopWatch series, which showed minorities are more likely to be pulled over by police and searched unnecessarily. He said minorities will be disproportionately affected by the new law, and many will be innocent.
“We do appreciate the job the law enforcement is doing,” Djoken said. “But we do not want innocent citizens to have to go through this because it’s been shown again and again that once the government has your information, you might spend your life trying to clear your name when mistakes are made.”
Proponents argue the bill will enable law enforcement to solve more crimes by adding to a searchable database of DNA.
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced the bill, which has passed both the House of Delegates and Senate in different forms. It will likely head to a conference committee this week for lawmakers to work out the differences.
O’Malley is optimistic about its passage, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. O’Malley personally testified for the bill and made it one of the centerpieces of his legislative agenda.
It ran into trouble when members of the legislative Black Caucus raised concerns. They added several amendments as the bill reached passage.
“The governor is continuing to work with members of the General Assembly but is confident the DNA fingerprint bill will pass,” Abbruzzese said. “He looks forward to signing it into law.”
Among Frederick County lawmakers, Democratic delegates Galen Clagett and Sue Hecht, Republican delegates Paul Stull and Rick Weldon, and Republican Sen. David Brinkley are sponsors of the bill.
Under the bill, after charges are dropped or someone is acquitted or pardoned, the state will expunge the DNA sample from the system.
Proponents argue a DNA sample should be taken before conviction because fingerprints and mug shots are taken at that point.
“I think in any area of crime prevention and criminal detection, this is the technology of the new millennia and something we really need to be exploring,” said Brinkley, who represents Frederick and Carroll counties.
Djoken and other critics say DNA is more invasive than a fingerprint because it contains much more information. The potential uses are still being developed.
“Once you open that door, it is difficult to close,” Djoken said.
As the bill was originally proposed, people would have been required to request their DNA be expunged. Djoken said minorities, who are more likely to be charged, would also be less likely to understand how to request expungement.
The latest version of the bill includes automatic expungement.
Brinkley said the debate about minorities being unjustly brought into the system is for another day.
This bill focuses on what happens to everyone who is brought into the system and not on how people are brought into it, he said.
Several other organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the bill along with the NAACP.
Sen. Alex Mooney, a Republican representing Frederick and Washington counties, originally supported the bill. By the time it got to the floor of the Senate, however, he decided to oppose it.
“Upon examining the bill closely, I began to realize that people’s constitutional rights in this country to be considered innocent until proven guilty were being infringed,” Mooney said.
The turning point came at a hearing when he asked Attorney General Doug Gansler about taking DNA from innocent people.
“If you’re going to take DNA from innocent people, why not go and take it from everybody?” Mooney said. “Go to the schools and take it from all the school kids, take it at birth, go to the hospitals.”
Mooney said he was shocked to hear that was where the state was going.
“I’m not comfortable going there, at least not this quickly.”
Brinkley said he was not concerned about that issue because the current bill is limited in scope and it is important to collect identification from those committing felonies.
“Well that’s the concern of the slippery slope, but at the same time, we have time, we can address those things as they’re brought up,” he said.
Police are already allowed to obtain DNA samples if they can show probable cause and get a judge’s approval.
The new law would allow police to link DNA to crimes where police otherwise wouldn’t have established it.
Djoken called the new bill a “fishing expedition” and said the NAACP membership feels the current system already allows law enforcement enough power to gather DNA.
“If they need your DNA, trust me, they’ll have it,” Djoken said. “We don’t need to take the privacy of innocent individuals and jeopardize that in the name of public safety.”