A bill that would allow the pretrial collection of DNA samples from suspects in serious felonies easily passed the Appropriation Committee on Monday despite concerns voiced by some lawmakers that it targets minorities and infringes on civil liberties.
The measure would allow law enforcement agencies to collect DNA samples from people accused of committing serious felonies such as murder, rape, or arson murder. The bill passed the committee with broad support on both sides of the aisle.
The samples collected would be put in a federal database and would be expunged if the suspect is found not guilty of the charges. As the bill currently reads, a person charged must make a request to have the samples destroyed. The bill’s proponent, Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said he is working on an amendment to the measure that would place that burden on the judicial system rather than the accused.
Hewett dismissed concerns that the measure would unfairly impact minority groups, saying it may actually help exonerate those falsely accused.
“If I walked out of this door right now and I was arrested for rape with an eyewitness and there was DNA found on the scene of that rape — God help me I wish they would take my DNA.
Because that eyewitness could put me behind bars for 18 years,” Hewett said. “…but that DNA can set me free. So I have to weigh the part where it’s invading privacy.”
Hewett said the measure could help put to rest a number of cold cases in the state. There are 3,800 pieces of untested evidence DNA in Connecticut, he said.
Rep. Don Clemons, D-Bridgeport, said it was the rape and murder of his son’s mother more than 30 years ago in Bridgeport that makes him inclined to support the bill. He said from 1978 to 1982 there were eight women abducted from Bridgeport and later found strangled and raped. To this day, those cases remain unsolved, he said.
“When I saw this piece of legislation Rep. Hewett produced, it brings back haunting memories,” he said, but he added that the measure could provide resolution for the families affected by those crimes.
Some conservative lawmakers lauded the measure as well, saying it could ultimately reduce the cost of investigating and prosecuting violent crimes.
But Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said that while the bill seems attractive at its face, it’s the job of legislators to make sure their bills are constitutional.
“Personally I’ve long argued that we won’t be robbed of our liberties at gun point. We will freely give them up one at a time to solve one problem at a time with our hearts being tugged by one truly horrible story at a time,” he said. “That’s why we’ve coded our liberties as we have.”
Tercyak said that as technology moves forward, the legislature reviews proposals claiming to save lives by the use of some new product, which companies claim doesn’t infringe on the rights of citizens. He said the country has reached a point he never thought it would, where everyone will be required to buy health insurance. Creating a database from the DNA of potentially innocent people is heading in the wrong direction, he said.
“Why would we also want to have a database like this available? Isn’t it just the beginning?” he asked.
It is not impossible to get a warrant for DNA collection for heinous crimes where DNA is left at the scene, Tercyak said.
As Tercyak continued, Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, asked him if he had a question about the measure for Hewett.
“Is it required? Or am I just allowed to say why I hate this bill and will be voting against it,” he asked.
She asked him to stick to the fiscal aspects of the measure and wait until the bill is raised on the floor to let his feelings be known.
The measure will now return to the House of Representatives.