By CHEYNA ROTH
Capital News Service
LANSING – Authorities in Michigan will soon begin collecting DNA samples when they arrest felony suspects under a new law that significantly expands the number of people required to give up such information.
The law, which will take effect July 1, aims to increase the pool of samples investigators can use to match suspects with unsolved crimes. Under current law, DNA samples are required of people arrested for a violent felony, entering prison or convicted of specific felonies or misdemeanors. The new law will require samples at the time of arrest for any felony. Refusal to supply a DNA sample will be a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
The law will increase the number of people whose DNA is collected each year, although legislators and State Police don’t have estimates on how many people will be affected. A review of felony motor vehicle thefts from the 2013 Michigan Incident Crime Report suggests more than 1,600 samples could be taken from that category alone.
The updated law marks the end of almost 10 years of debate about what to do with this evolving technology. Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, a Republican from Lawton, sponsored the bill at the request of Michigan State Police, along with earlier legislation expanding DNA collection.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and with 17 nays in the House. In an interview, Schuitmaker echoed Gov. Rick Snyder’s claims that the new legislation could increase solve rates for cold cases. She also said it was important to keep up with the times and compared DNA collection to photographing and fingerprinting.
Schuitmaker added that the law “protects rights of the innocent” by helping ensure that the right person is arrested.
But the American Civil Liberties Union is not convinced a bill of this type is worth the invasion of privacy.
When the U.S. Supreme Court held that DNA could be collected upon arrest in 2013, the ACLU called the decision a “serious blow to genetic privacy.” Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the ACLU of Michigan, said the group has been working against the automatic taking of DNA upon arrest.
Cold cases are rarely solved through DNA, Weisberg said. The ACLU, in its brief for the Supreme Court case, cited studies from the United Kingdom and RAND, a non-profit research institute, finding DNA testing upon arrest does not significantly improve database-hit rates.
Weisberg is happy the new legislation requires destroying DNA and taking it out of the profiling system if an individual is eventually exonerated. However, she said the law is “somewhat dangerous” because DNA provides a lot more personal information than fingerprints, “things about you that you may not want people to know.”
The question becomes: Does the invasion of an arrested person’s privacy outweigh the mere possibility that a case could be solved? Many law enforcement officials believe it does.
Growing a database of DNA profiles increases the chances of solving cases that do not have a known suspect, said Chris Barsheff, a lieutenant with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office who has worked with DNA since the technology became available.
Where fingerprints fail, DNA can often be collected instead, Barsheff said. For example, steering wheels often do not hold fingerprints because of the material they are made of. However, steering wheels do collect sweat from their users, and where there is sweat, there is DNA.
Not only does DNA help solve crimes, Barsheff said, but it is increasingly becoming necessary to convince criminal juries of defendants’ guilt.
“When you have the public who watches CSI and those other police shows, that’s all they seem to be fixated on,” Barsheff said. “When you don’t provide that evidence, it actually hurts your case.”
By CHEYNA ROTH