BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas law enforcement authorities will have access to a greater number of DNA samples because of Act 543, which the legislature approved in the regular session earlier this year.
The police had been empowered to collect DNA samples from people arrested for violent crimes and sexual offenses. Act 543 expands that authority and enables law officers to collect DNA from everyone arrested for a felony.
Across the country there have been news reports about how DNA matches enabled the police to catch violent offenders and make arrests in previously unsolved cases. Typically, it has happened after the police arrested someone for a crime such as burglary, theft or terroristic threatening.
After they collected DNA samples and matched the suspects’ DNA with evidence from other crimes, the police were able to confirm that they had caught a dangerous, repeat offender.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional for the police to take DNA from a suspect without a warrant issued by a judge, and prior to that person’s conviction.
The Supreme Court ruling came in a Maryland case, in which a man was arrested for pointing his gun at several people. Police took samples of his DNA from a cheek swab, before he had been convicted, and linked him to an unsolved rape that had occurred years earlier.
For law enforcement, testing DNA profiles has become an effective method of solving crimes. Like fingerprints, they can help identify individuals based on small pieces of evidence left at the scene of the crime.
The Supreme Court ruled that taking a throat swab to get a DNA sample is no more of a violation of privacy than taking fingerprints from a person who has been arrested and therefore who has a reduced expectation of privacy.
Besides helping the police arrest the offenders in unsolved cases, a broader use of DNA samples can also lead to the acquittal of people who have been wrongly charged or wrongly convicted.
Arkansas is now one of 29 states in which the police collect DNA from people who are arrested. Louisiana was the first state to enact DNA laws. Wisconsin and Michigan joined Arkansas in passing a DNA collection law earlier this year.
Previously in Arkansas, DNA samples were collected only from people arrested for first degree and capital murder, kidnapping, rape and sexual assault in the first and second degree.
People whose DNA has been collected after a felony arrest can apply to have the sample destroyed if they are acquitted, or if they are found guilty of the lesser charges of a Class B or Class C misdemeanor.
They can also apply to have their DNA removed from the Arkansas Crime Information Center data base if the charges against them are dropped. If they are convicted but successfully have the conviction reversed on appeal, they can apply to have their DNA removed.
Some people see widespread collection of DNA as an invasion of privacy, but supporters say that it is effective in solving the most heinous of crimes, such as murder and rape. Also, they say it prevents future crimes that would be committed by serial and repeat offenders.