Gov. Martin O'Malley made a personal appeal yesterday for his proposal to collect DNA samples from suspects arrested for violent crimes and not just those who are convicted, appearing before two General Assembly committees to push for the centerpiece of his legislative agenda.
Joined by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and other law enforcement officials, the governor told lawmakers that with Maryland's violent crime rate among the highest in the country, police need more investigative tools to get criminals off the streets and prevent them from committing repeat offenses.
"By adding one simple, noninvasive step to the booking process of an individual arrested for rape, robbery, shooting and murder, we can actually save lives," he told members of the House Judiciary Committee. He likened swabbing a suspect's cheek for DNA to taking their fingerprints and said Maryland needs to join Virginia and 10 other states in expanding its DNA database.
Civil liberties and civil rights groups testified in opposition to the governor's bill and similar measures introduced by legislators, contending that taking DNA samples routinely from people when they are arrested violates their constitutional rights against unlawful searches, that it could increase racial profiling and that DNA evidence is not foolproof.
The governor's bill would authorize collection of DNA samples from anyone charged with a violent crime or with burglary. The state now collects DNA only from convicted felons.
O'Malley pointed to a Baltimore County case as one example of how more DNA samples would help police catch serial criminals. Authorities charged Leon Copeland with murder and rape in 2000, and with another rape in 2004, the governor said. But the crimes dated to 1986, and Copeland had been arrested five times since then for violent offenses without having his DNA taken, which might have linked him sooner to those old crimes.
The governor also pointed out that DNA evidence not only helps catch and convict repeat offenders but that it has also exonerated those wrongly convicted of crimes. O'Malley said Virginia, whose law is the model for his bill, has closed more than 300 cold cases using DNA evidence, while freeing 212 others who were wrongly accused.
Dr. Gary Rodwell, vice president of the ACLU of Maryland, warned that giving police more power to take evidence from people they arrest could increase complaints of racial profiling. He said nonwhites are now arrested for rape and murder three times more often than whites, and he pointed to problems with DNA databases in other states.
Some lawmakers said they were uncomfortable with taking DNA from those charged with burglary and with keeping DNA samples in the database even if charges are later dropped. Proponents responded that many violent criminals have prior records of property crimes.
Gansler countered that the bill would allow those acquitted to ask to have their DNA removed from the database, but he argued that automatically expunging all such samples would undermine the value of this investigative tool.