A controversial bill to require the pre-conviction collection of DNA samples from suspects of serious felonies cleared the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
During the meeting Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, called DNA samples the fingerprint of the 21st century and said they are becoming necessary to prove a suspect’s guilt. Hewett told the committee that he previously opposed the measure, but after researching issues around it, he has become a strong supporter.
Some opponents of the bill say taking DNA samples from people who haven’t been convicted of any crime unfairly targets minority groups. But on Wednesday, Hewett said he saw it a little differently.
“It will target minorities. It will target them and give them a fair shot at being exonerated,” he said.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said that’s unrealistic.
“There would have to be an active movement of checking whether or not these people are guilty. That’s just not how it works,” he said.
That kind of project takes time and money, he said.
During the committee’s discussion on the measure the associated costs seemed to take a back seat to the idea of “the right thing to do.” But Holder-Winfield said it is his guess that many of the lawmakers who support the DNA collection bill will oppose a measure he penned to improve the reliability of witness testimony. He speculated that during that discussion, concerns over associated costs will trump “the right thing to do,” he said.
The DNA collection measure also presents significant civil liberties issues, he said. Being arrested is not an indication of guilt, so collecting samples from someone who has only been arrested is just as unconstitutional as collecting DNA samples from him, he said. The only difference is that one person was arrested, and the other wasn’t, he said.
After the bill passed with six dissenting voices, Hewett said he was pretty confident that the measure had the votes to clear the committee but was glad he got the opportunity to speak about it again. He said he wasn’t sure whether the measure will be embraced by the rest of the General Assembly, but he said he now he has some time to try and drum up some support in the House.
The committee also passed a bill Wednesday that would allow law enforcement officers to use force to acquire DNA samples from felony inmates who refuse to consent to its collection.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said there are 400 convicted felons within Department of Corrections facilities who are refusing to allow the collection of the samples.
“What are they hiding?” both Kissel and Hewett asked.
If even half of them are refusing because they know the samples would connect them to another crime, the state has the opportunity to put 200 cold cases to rest, Kissel said.