In New York State anyone convicted of a felony must give a sample of their DNA to the state crime lab, where it can be checked against any outstanding cases. Now a bill in the state assembly proposes to expand that database…taking a DNA sample from anyone convicted of misdemeanor or a non-penal code felony like D-W-I. . But opponents of the bill say it goes too far. Our story comes from Geoff Storm of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.
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Two years ago Curtis Tucker of Manhattan was convicted of assaulting and robbing an elderly man who suffered with Parkinson’s disease.
It wasn’t his first violent crime.
When investigators ran Tucker’s DNA through the system, they got a match in another attack from 6 years earlier…the robbery and attempted rape of a 15 year old girl.
Tucker had also been convicted of two misdemeanors in the years between those attacks, so under the bill now before the State Assembly, his DNA would have already been in the system, and Tucker might have already been in jail,
State Senator Martin Golden co-sponsored the bill to collect a DNA sample from everyone convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor.
The DNA databank is the modern day equivalent of the fingerprint.
Golden says that since the state DNA database was last expanded to include petit larceny, 14 hundred criminals have been identified and put behind bars for other more serious offenses.
That’s just since 2006 and on just the crime of petit larceny that these individuals had committed brutal crimes, heinous crimes such as murder and rape
Golden and many prosecutors believe the new bill can deliver that kind of success, solving old crimes and preventing new ones. The Cuomo Administration supports the bill, and Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy has been traveling the state touting its benefits. Duffy notes that most criminals—like Tucker—are serial offenders.
Often in very violent felony convictions, people were arrested and convicted, on average, almost two or three times of lower level offenses. This will allow DNA to be put into the New York State Police Crime Lab, and hopefully, if that same person is responsible for another crime, to have that person taken off our streets.
But DNA can exonerate as well as convict. With a lengthening list of inmates freed by DNA evidence, Barrie Gewanter of the New York Civil Liberties Union says the law should give all defendants the same right to the database as the prosecutors.
We need to make sure that we are at the same time providing adequate and equal access, no matter whether people are low-income or not, to the DNA that may exonerate them if there is a mistaken conviction.
Some opponents of the bill have raised privacy concerns, seeing the increased collection of DNA as an unwarranted government intrusion. But Ray Philo, who worked in law enforcement for thirty years and now teaches criminal justice at Utica College, argues the proposed law would be less .
What most people don’t understand and really hasn’t been brought forth on this issue is the fact that currently when you’re arrested, you are biometrically recorded. It’s done by fingerprints. We’ve been doing that for decades. This legislation takes DNA, but only after you’re convicted.
Despite the reliability of that DNA evidence, the sheer scope of the database could actually lead to wrongful convictions says Stephen Saloom, policy director for The Innocence Project.
If you expand the DNA database to even those people who committed the lowest level crimes, you’re going to greatly increase the size of the database and a lot more people are going to become suspects based on stray DNA at crime scenes. If we’re going to expand the database, we’ve got to enact the innocence protections that are so badly needed in New York.
Protections he says, like eyewitness identification reforms, mandatory videotaping of police interrogations, and other safeguards against wrongful convictions. Saloom says even with the present database eighty percent of DNA matches fail to put anyone behind bars.
Most people don’t realize that. Frankly, the state can’t tell you why 8 out of 10 database hits don’t turn into a conviction// So I think policy makers would do wise to consider if perhaps instead investing some resources in police investigations might be a better first step than this expansion right now.
The bill has already passed the state Senate and is being debated in the Assembly.
I’m Geoff Storm with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.