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Book'em, swab'em: Officers begin collecting DNA samples upon arrest

The Star,
BYLINE: Rebecca Clark,
Link to Article

Shelby, NC

2011-02-01_INT_Bookem_swabem_01A Shelby police officer holds a swab from a DNA testing kit. A new law will require DNA samples of people who commit certain crimes. Brittany Randolph/The Star

A Shelby police officer holds a flat stick in a gloved hand, demonstrating what the DNA swab looks like and what is in each testing kit.

Tuesday was the day a new law went into effect requiring officers across the state to collect DNA from people arrested for certain crimes.

Most of the crimes on the list involve violent felonies or sex offenses.

Sheriff Alan Norman said personnel at the Sheriff’s Office have already been trained on using the kits.

Once someone is arrested and probable cause is established, the suspect’s DNA is collected through a cheek swab and then sent to the State Bureau of Investigation, Norman said. The DNA is used for comparisons with other crime scenes or stored in state and federal databases.

“Hopefully it will lead to the arrest of individuals that have committed crimes in the past,” Norman said. “It can also be used for crimes that happen in the future.”

He said cases that have been sitting dormant could be solved with the new law.

“It’s going to allow comparison of DNA that has been collected in cases that have been at a standstill for years,” Norman said. “On the other side, it could also find individuals innocent of crimes that they have been convicted of.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, neither the Shelby Police Department nor the Sheriff’s Office had performed a DNA collection.

Norman said the entire process takes about a minute and half.

“If they refuse to cooperate, they can be held in the detention center until they cooperate with the DNA collection,” he said. “That will be a stipulation with their release.”

Around 20 crimes are included on the DNA collection list.

“Hopefully this is just the start,” Norman said. “Hopefully more crimes will be added to that list.”

The program will cost the state an estimated $1.3 million for the first year.

Civil liberties groups have opposed the bill, arguing that collecting DNA without a conviction or a search warrant raises Fourth Amendment concerns.

Shelby Police Chief Jeff Ledford said safeguards are in place.

“I think some of the safeguards they’ve built in are really good,” said Ledford. “For instance, if we take a DNA sample from somebody once probable cause has been established, if that person is found not guilty or the charges are dismissed, then that DNA is taken out of the registry. If you’re found not guilty, they don’t keep it.”

He also emphasized that the measure is law and must be followed by law enforcement officials.

“People need to understand this is not an option,” Ledford said. “This is not something law enforcement can do, it’s something we have to do. We can’t be selective. We are strictly bound by statue.”

The only downside Ledford could see was the time involved in the process.

“It’s a great program and I think it has benefits far beyond what we see right now, but the downside is you’re adding something to the booking process,” Ledford said.

Not only is there an extra step in the process, but there is the paperwork that goes with it.

Ultimately, Ledford said the effort is worth it.

“The return is worth the investment, I believe,” he said.

Norman also said he thought it was time well spent.

“It will more than pay dividends,” he said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Clark at 704-669-3344.

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