Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley backed a bill that would allow police to collect the DNA of people arrested for felonies during booking, calling the genetic material a crucial tool to help solve — and prevent — violent crime, during a Joint Committee on the Judiciary hearing at the State House on Wednesday.
"DNA fingerprinting for felony arrests will reveal the identity of violent offenders, and it is most prevalent in crimes of sexual violence against women," said Conley, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and spoke flanked by three other district attorneys. "Gathering DNA fingerprints won't just identify sexual predators — it will help us stop them before they strike again."
Currently, people convicted of felonies are required to give a DNA sample, Conley said. The bill, put forth by state Representative Edward F. Coppinger and called An Act Relative to the DNA Database, would allow officials to collect the sample at the time of a felony arrest.
More than 30 other states currently collect DNA samples from suspects at the time of arrest, Conley and Coppinger said, and the Supreme Court two years ago called it "a legitimate booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment." Coppinger said he has filed the bill once before, but it did not pass.
"States have been collecting DNA from convicted felons for over two decades, and it has helped solve thousands of crimes," Coppinger told the committee. "By expanding the DNA database to include those arrested and charged with a felony, law enforcement officials can catch criminals sooner, prevent crimes, and save more lives."
Coppinger said the DNA sampling could also identify and exonerate the innocent.
But Ann Lambert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts , said that allowing the government to collect DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime was a dangerous and unconstitutional invasion of privacy.
"Are we really in that world?" she asked after the hearing. "Are we really going to insist that unconvicted persons, who should be viewed as innocent in the eyes of the law — in the eyes of everybody — should be required to provide their most personal information?"
Lambert conceded that the Supreme Court approved of DNA collection upon arrest, but noted that the decision was split 5 to 4, and pointed to Justice Antonin Scalia's blistering dissent.
"Today's judgment will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes; then again, so would the taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane . . . applies for a driver's license, or attends a public school," Scalia wrote. "Perhaps the construction of such a genetic panopticon is wise. But I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection."
Lambert said that DNA could potentially reveal intimate information about unconvicted individuals, such as their medical history or prognosis, or their familial or ethnic makeup.
DNA, she said, "shows a lot more than simply who you are."
Conley, however, said the DNA the government would collect would be "non-coding DNA," which he said contains only a tiny sliver of the information in a person's full genetic code. It can tell officials the gender and identity of a person, he said, but it could not reveal genetic traits or medical history. He likened it to a more accurate and precise fingerprint.
Conley said that often, one defendant is responsible for multiple crimes. In Colorado, he said, officials found that a sample group of just five defendants were responsible for 52 unsolved violent crimes — including three murders, seven kidnappings, and 19 sexual assualts.
In an interview, he called the issue of DNA testing upon arrest "a women's issue," because genetic material is often key in sexual assault cases. About 20 years ago, he said, a young woman was raped in Brighton by a man selling magazine subscriptions. Two years ago, he said, Derrick Scott was arrested for drunk driving in California, where his DNA was taken at his arrest, and came back a match to the unsolved rape. He was convicted of rape and kidnapping this summer.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.