Colorado lawmakers gave initial approval Thursday to a bill that would require that people who’ve committed small-time crimes submit their DNA into a state-run database for comparison to DNA collected in unsolved cases as well as for crimes that have yet to be committed.
Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon, the bill would collect DNA from everyone who is convicted of or pleads guilty to a Class 1 misdemeanor, a category of crimes that fills 35 pages in the state lawbooks. They range from offenses such as theft and assault, which Pabon said were the sorts of crimes that often lead to more violent crimes in the future, as well as trivial offenses such as practicing massage therapy without being properly registered.
Though Pabon said the intention of the bill was to solve cold cases and prevent innocent people from being wrongfully convicted, critics — including many skeptical members of the House Judiciary Committee — questioned his premise that people who commit certain petty crimes sometimes graduate to more serious offenses.
Rep. Claire Levy asked Pabon why his bill didn’t just require a DNA swab from those “predictive” crimes, like petty theft, adding that she was “shocked” at Pabon’s assumptions that people who commit small crimes either have committed more serious ones or will in the future.
“The whole premise of this bill seems to be that if you do one bad thing we have a right to put you in a database and suspect that you’ve done a lot of other bad things for which there is absolutely no evidence,” she said. “There’s a logical flaw there that I’m concerned about.”
Pabon said requiring a DNA swab for all Class 1 misdemeanors — even those that aren’t predictive of future criminal activity, like illegally recording a public performance — was a matter of “administrative efficiency” that will help court officials apply a consistent standard.
And he said that those who are worried about intrusion on civil liberties shouldn’t become criminals.
“For those who are worried about this, don’t commit crimes,” he said. “Don’t be a criminal actor. Don’t engage in criminal activity.”
Colorado currently requires felons to submit to DNA swabs, as well as those who commit misdemeanor sexual assault. Their DNA is run through the database to see it matches past crimes and it’s kept for comparison to DNA collected at future crime scenes.
Pabon said there are 3,300 unsolved cases in Colorado for which there are samples of unknown DNA, including murder, rape, robbery and burglary. He cited New York, which has a similar law, as proof that collecting DNA from those convicted of misdemeanors works. He said since 2006, New York has caught 48 murderers and other felons based on DNA collected from misdemeanor offenders.
“This bill is designed to save lives,” he said, “and exonerate the innocent and protect the public.”
But his characterization of DNA as the “fingerprint of the 21st century” drew more criticism.
“Your DNA says a lot about you,” said Denise Maes, the public policy director of the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. DNA can be used to determine what diseases you may contract, she said, and who you are related to.
“Equating it to a fingerprint and a mugshot is dumbfounding,” she said.
Maes is concerned that the bill had no provision for removing DNA from the database if an offender later has the conviction overturned and said that the bill allows the government too much freedom to “possess your DNA and control the terms of [its] current and future use.”
“Where does it end?” she said.
Debate on the bill stretched into the night. Despite the misgivings of many on the committee, it eventually won bipartisan approval and passed 9-2.
It must pass the Finance Committee before it will be heard by the full House.
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