Ever since the dawn of DNA technology, lawmakers have sought to collect genetic samples from people that might pose a danger to society. But the newest effort to expand Vermont’s DNA database is facing stiff criticism from personal privacy advocates.
The state already collects DNA from convicted felons. Lawmakers last tried to expand the DNA database in 2009. The legislation passed shortly after the shocking murder of a 12-year-old girl from Braintree. It required people charged with felonies – not just those convicted – to hand over DNA samples to the Department of Public Safety.
Last summer, four years after the law took effect, the Vermont Supreme Court shot down the statute, saying the pre-conviction collection of DNA samples violated the privacy rights of Vermont citizens.
Now, the lawmaker behind the 2009 law is back with another bill. This time, Bennington Sen. Dick Sears wants to collect DNA from people convicted of most misdemeanors.
“The more people you have in the database, the easier it is to eliminate suspects and to zero in on the right suspect,” Sears says. “And I think our goal of both fingerprinting and DNA is to make sure … that our arrests and convictions are correct.”
Sears isn’t alone in pushing for the expansion. Prosecutors, police and other public safety officials have lined up solidly behind the measure. The attorney general’s office says the legislation could improve the effectiveness of a database that has already helped solve major cases, such as the 1991 murder in Stowe of Patricia Scoville.
“And we have in this state solved a number of homicides using the DNA database in exactly the way that I think it was intended,” says John Treadwell, chief of the criminal division at the Attorney General’s office.
Allen Gilbert, head of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is more dubious. The bill would only mandate DNA collection from people convicted of misdemeanors that have possible jail time as a penalty. But Gilbert says the list of misdemeanor crimes meeting that criteria is pretty far reaching.
“Anyone knowingly mislabeling maple syrup, for example, that is caught, prosecuted and convicted will have his or her DNA collected, and that’s because mislabeling maple syrup carries a maximum penalty that includes a year in jail,” Gilbert says.
And Gilbert says it’s hard to see how public safety is improved by culling DNA from people convicted of, say, bringing more than nine quarts of whiskey across state lines, or trespassing on a neighbor’s posted meadow.
The legislation would expand dramatically the number of people on the state’s DNA database. According to statistics from the Department of Safety, the state has added an average of about 1,500 samples to the database annually over the past six years. The new bill would land an additional 4,600 people on the registry in the first year alone, according to public safety estimates.
The annual cost to comply with the legislation would exceed $142,000 for laboratory tests alone, and would come as the Department of Public Safety is looking to trim more than $1 million from next year’s budget due to a revenue downgrade that has forced reductions across state government.
Treadwell was involved in the unsuccessful defense of the 2009 law, and says the court in that case expressed a specific concern over the collection of DNA samples from people who had not been convicted of a crime. Sears and Treadwell say this new bill likely won’t run afoul of the Supreme Court, since it affects only people who have been convicted of a crime.
But Defender General Matt Valerio, whose office oversees the public defense of criminal suspects, says the passage cited by Treadwell is a “very narrow reading of a portion of that opinion.” And Valerio says that in his view, the proposed statute pretty clearly violates the search and seizure protections guaranteed in Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution.
“I think what the issue ultimately is going to be is a balancing of the privacy interests that an individual has versus the potential harm for having committed a misdemeanor,” Valerio says. “And you don’t automatically in our view have a right to take DNA when you’re dealing with the most minor crime that we have in the system.”