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New Jersey Senators Push Bill to Expand the State's DNA Database

New Jersey legislators seek to expand the state's criminal DNA database, requiring a DNA sample at the time of arrest for certain crimes, and making refusal a felony.

September 30, 2010 ( Senator Nicholas Sacco and Senator John Girgenti, Chairman of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, have proposed a law that would expand New Jersey's criminal DNA database. If enacted, the law could have a significant impact on people suspected of committing certain violent crimes, such as murder and aggravated assault .

DNA is a powerful piece of evidence used to identify alleged perpetrators of crimes and also to exonerate individuals who are wrongfully accused or convicted. DNA is present in almost every cell in the human body and is unique to each person, except for identical twins. It is easily transferred to objects and is especially valuable because even small amounts of DNA can be replicated and analyzed with a high degree of certainty and reliability.

A DNA sample can be obtained by swiping the inside of the cheek with a cotton swab.

The DNA Database and Databank Act

The New Jersey DNA Database and Databank Act was enacted in 1994. It required adults who were convicted of a sexual offense (or attempted sexual offense) to provide a DNA sample that would be collected in a database of DNA profiles. The law's purpose was to share information between the state of New Jersey and the FBI to help solve investigations frustrated by a lack of reliable evidence.

The law was expanded in 1997 to include juveniles convicted of sexual offenses, including those found not guilty by reason of insanity. In 2000, people convicted of other violent offenses, like murder and aggravated assault, were required to provide a DNA sample for the database. Most recently, in 2003, the act was amended to include DNA samples in convictions for any indictable crime.

Now, Senators Sacco and Girgenti seek to further expand the law to require a DNA sample at the time of arrest from a person suspected of certain crimes such as murder, kidnapping, luring or enticing a child, and sexual assault. Refusal to submit to DNA collection would be a felony punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, up to 18 months of incarceration, or both.

The proposed legislation allows an individual to petition the court to have their DNA sample destroyed and all related records expunged if the charges that required the DNA sample are dismissed or if the individual is acquitted at trial.

Twenty-three states already collect DNA samples prior to conviction, and 17 more, including New Jersey, are considering proposals that would collect DNA samples from arrestees. The federal government began taking DNA samples from arrestees and immigration detainees in 2008. However, there has been no comprehensive study of whether these laws actually prevent or help solve crime.

The Possible Benefits of Expanding New Jersey's DNA Database

Senator Girgenti said that DNA is "the most reliable form of evidence at a crime scene, and it provides benefits on both sides of the justice equation." Senator Sacco stated that the bill is "an effort to bring wanted criminals to justice," and "studies show that there is a 40 percent chance that burglaries and other nonviolent crimes are being committed by someone who has already committed a violent crime."

By expanding the DNA database with more DNA samples, law-enforcement officials could more likely match DNA found at a crime scene with DNA previously collected from an arrestee or convict, possibly leading to identification of the person who committed the crime.

In addition, an expanded DNA database could also benefit people suspected or convicted of committing a crime. If DNA evidence from the crime scene does not match a suspect's DNA, that individual could be exonerated and set free.

Possible Pitfalls in Expanding New Jersey's DNA Database

On the other hand, the proposed legislation may be problematic. Some critics argue that collecting DNA from arrestees essentially begins the penalty for criminal behavior when a person is accused of a crime, rather than after they are convicted. "It is antithetical to the founding American value of innocent until proven guilty," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Senator Nia Gill also fears there is not enough protection for suspects under the bill. "We do have a presumption of innocence in this country," she said. Additionally, Senator Gill is concerned that DNA information collected by law-enforcement officers might be used for commercial purposes without the consent of the person who provided the sample; she called the proposal "Orwellian."

Furthermore, DNA contains much more data than is needed to determine a person's identity. Information regarding genetic propensity for disease and blood relations is also discoverable with DNA. When DNA from a crime scene is entered into a large database to seek a match, the database might produce a partial or familial match, affecting the privacy of people related to an arrestee.

The proposed legislation could have a considerable impact on people arrested for certain violent crimes. The expansion of New Jersey's DNA database could represent two very different things at the same time: an encroachment on privacy rights and exoneration of the wrongfully accused and convicted.

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[] New Jersey Senators Push Bill to Expand the State's DNA Database
New Jersey legislators seek to expand the state's criminal DNA database, requiring a DNA sample at the time of arrest for certain crimes, and making refusal a felony.