Lawmaker wants DNA from suspects when arrested for state crimes

April 24, 2011

In 2001, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert relied on a DNA match to solve the case of Washington state’s Green River Killer, who murdered 49 women and ranks as the nation’s most prolific serial killer.

Now a Republican congressman, Reichert wants Congress to expand the use of DNA testing by getting more states to collect DNA samples, just as they do fingerprints, when suspected felons are arrested for state crimes.

Such testing already is allowed for anyone arrested by a U.S. law enforcement agency for a federal crime.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s an invasion of privacy and that DNA testing should be reserved for convicted felons. They note that hundreds of thousands of people are arrested each year but that many of them are never charged or convicted.

To promote his effort on Capitol Hill, Reichert has teamed up with Jayann and David Sepich of Carlsbad, N.M., whose 22-year-old daughter, Katie, a graduate student at New Mexico State University, was raped, strangled, set on fire and abandoned at a dump site in August 2003.

Three months after Katie was killed, Gabriel Avilla was arrested on suspicion of aggravated burglary. No DNA sample was collected from him. He wasn’t linked to the Sepich slaying until he was apprehended, and later convicted, for another burglary in December 2006.

Reichert and the Sepich family say the case could have been solved three years earlier if a DNA sample had been taken at the time of the first arrest.

A patchwork of laws is now in place for DNA testing.

Under a law Congress passed in 2006, DNA samples have been taken from those arrested on suspicion of federal crimes since January 2009, with the information going to a national database. Federal crimes can include anything involving interstate travel, including heists and the transport of illegal contraband, and such things as tax evasion, immigration offenses and counterfeiting of money.

In addition, 24 states have passed laws covering state crimes. Each state has its own criminal code, so something that’s a felony in one state may not be in another.

Reichert, who sponsored his bill with Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), wants to spend roughly $30 million over five years to provide incentives for the remaining 26 states to pass similar laws. The bill is called the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, or Katie’s Law for short. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

If more states participated, more crimes would be solved earlier, Reichert said, adding: “Not only that, there would be some innocent people in prison released.”

If Congress provided incentive money, Reichert said, he suspects that most states would participate, given their money troubles. But none would be forced to do so.

“There are certain members of Congress in both houses that believe that states should maintain control, especially over local crime issues, unless they cross over into federal jurisdiction, and most of the time the crimes that we’re talking about don’t,” he said.

Reichert acknowledged one big sticking point: With Congress in a budget-cutting mode, “the big hurdle that we have to overcome is how we’re going to pay for this.”

On average, Jayann Sepich said, it costs $30 to collect a DNA sample.

But in the long run, she said, states would save money. In the case of her daughter’s murder, Sepich said, an extra $200,000 was spent investigating the case over the three years before the killer was found.

“So $200,000 could have been saved with a cheek swab,” she said.

Some of the state statutes already have been tested in the courts, including in California, where voters approved a law in 2004.

Lily Haskell became the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit, filed by the ACLU, challenging the constitutionality of the California law. She was arrested in San Francisco in 2009 at a rally opposing the Iraq war, on suspicion of trying to help another protester who was being held by police, a felony in California. She was forced to provide a DNA sample, even though she was never charged. She complained that her genetic information is now “stored indefinitely in a government database.”

With other challenges under way, Sepich predicted that the issue won’t be resolved until it hits the Supreme Court. She said she thought it would be upheld.

“I wouldn’t be spending my life working so hard if it was just going to be struck down,” she said.

— McClatchy-Tribune

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