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NC law mandating DNA from suspects hailed as crime-fighting tool

citizen-times.com
BYLINE: Clarke Morrison

Asheville, NC

ASHEVILLE — A new state law requiring that police take DNA samples from people charged in violent or sex crimes could solve 100 cases statewide in the first year alone.

And it could give investigators more breaks like one that led to a recent arrest in an Asheville rape from 2001, state and local authorities said.

“It's just another scientific tool that we can use in law enforcement and the criminal justice system to help clear crimes,” Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan said. “We can also use it to help clear innocent people. It works both ways.”

Gov. Bev Perdue signed the bill into law last week after overwhelming approval in the House and Senate. She called DNA “the 21st-century version of fingerprints.”

Attorney General Roy Cooper, who lobbied hard for the law, made the estimate that it could help solve 100 cases in the first year.

The state's database now includes samples from all convicted felons, the result of a 2003 law. Cooper said that law has enabled officers to solve more than 1,400 cases.

The new law will require that officers to swab the cheeks of suspects charged with felonies in violent crimes and felony and misdemeanor sex crimes.

When the measure takes effect Feb. 1, North Carolina will become the 24th state to collect DNA upon arrest, though the practice has taken criticism from civil libertarians who say it goes too far.

The genetic blueprints now can only be taken from suspects and entered into a database after they are convicted.

Hogan, who supports the new law, said the value of DNA evidence is illustrated by the March arrest of Andrew Grady Davis, who was charged with raping a young Asheville woman in her apartment in 2001.

The State Bureau of Investigation in North Carolina matched Davis' DNA to the rape after the suspect was convicted in Oklahoma of running a roadblock, eluding police and drug possession, police said.

Cooper said the more people in the database, the more likely investigators can find a match that could solve a crime that might otherwise go unsolved. Samples in the database can be compared to unidentified samples from cold cases and new crime scenes.

Civil libertarians argued that taking DNA samples from those merely accused of crimes undermines the presumption of innocence and Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The new law carries an implication of culpability on the part of those arrested, said Fred Hawley, a professor of criminology at Western Carolina University.

“There is kind of a presumption on the part of law enforcement personnel that he must have done something,” he said. “At what point, if ever, does the use of technology and law enforcement become too much?”

Taking the idea to extreme, lawmakers could require that all newborns have samples of their DNA taken and put into a database, Hawley said.

“There are other values in society than the convenience and efficiency of law enforcement,” he said. “There is a real public welfare issue here. Do we really want to subject theoretically innocent people to a rigorous scientific procedure at the point of arrest?”

Defenders point out the law requires the SBI to destroy DNA samples when defendants are found not guilty or the charges are dropped. Hogan likened the taking of DNA to fingerprinting.

“It makes the community safer,” he said. “I don't see it as intrusive.”

Hogan said the taking of samples likely will occur at the jail when suspects are processed and having their fingerprints taken. The samples then will be sent to an SBI lab for storage and analysis.

He said the additional work required by local authorities shouldn't be burdensome.

“I'm more than willing to have the Police Department play any role it needs to play in supporting the law and collecting the evidence,” Hogan said.

Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan said he needs to study the new law before deciding whether he supports it, but he noted that DNA is helpful in solving crimes.

“It certainly has enabled us to go back and look at crimes that were unsolved,” he said. “It helps us determine what happened on crime scenes.”

Cooper estimated the first-year cost of the new law at $1.4 million.

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