Maryland gov. wants to expand DNA testing

By Timothy B. Wheeler
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, Md. — Taking aim at Maryland's high violent crime rate, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Thursday that he would seek legislation to expand DNA sampling to people arrested for violent crimes and burglaries.

Flanked by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and a bevy of state and local law enforcement officials, O'Malley said that taking DNA swabs from people arrested as well as those convicted of felonies or sex offenses would help police prevent violent crimes by solving old cases, interrupt serial criminals and clear some who have been wrongly convicted on other evidence.

"It will be a huge help to increasing the reservoir law enforcement will have to solve these cases and make Maryland one of the safest states in the union," the governor said.

He and Gansler noted that Maryland has the fifth-highest rate of violent crimes in the nation.

O'Malley also announced that with the help of federal funds obtained by the state, the Maryland State Police have wiped out a backlog of more than 24,000 DNA samples collected that had yet to be entered into a nationwide database maintained by the FBI.

He and other law enforcement officials at the news conference at the Maryland State Police Forensic Science Laboratory in Pikesville likened the DNA testing to fingerprinting of suspects and said the public should have no fear of its privacy being invaded by a measure targeting violent criminals.

Eleven states collect DNA samples from those arrested on felony charges, and O'Malley said Virginia had been among the first to do so. Maryland now collects samples from convicted sex offenders and from convicted felons.

Similar legislation has failed to pass the General Assembly before, amid concerns posed by defense lawyers and civil liberties advocates.

Cindy Boersma, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said taking DNA samples from arrestees could violate their constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure, since they have yet to be convicted of anything.

The samples are being taken to see if the suspect can be connected to other unsolved crimes without investigators having any probable cause to link them to more offenses, she said.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, predicted the bill would "have some traction" if the governor pushes it.

But the Montgomery County Democrat was noncomittal, saying he would need to see the bill before deciding whether he could support it.

O'Malley drew support from at least one Republican, Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip from Washington County.

"It is in my opinion a common-sense measure to protect public safety," said Shank, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Shank said a measure that would have authorized taking DNA samples from arrestees died in the committee last year, but the overriding concern then was the cost involved, not privacy.

O'Malley said hiring additional lab workers and equipment to process arrestees' DNA samples would cost about $1.7 million a year. He called the cost "a small price to pay" to curb crime and predicted that the legislature would support the measure this year.

Copyright 2008 The Baltimore Sun

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