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New Florida law requires police to collect DNA in felony cases

TALLAHASSEE — Under a new law signed by Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday, the DNA of any person accused of a felony will be added to a state database.

Florida is the 20th state to require police to take a DNA sample, such as a mouth swab, of everyone charged with a felony. The state will hold on to that sample, even if the felony charge is dismissed. Previously, authorities could take a DNA sample only after conviction of a felony or specified misdemeanors.

"This is common sense and the right thing to do," Crist said at a bill signing ceremony at which he was accompanied by dozens of uniformed state troopers.

Civil libertarians argue that the new law vastly oversteps the government's powers.

"Anti-big government conservatives should be up in arms about this," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "Housing a person's DNA in a criminal database renders that person an automatic suspect for any future crime —without warrant, probable cause or individualized suspicion."

He said police should be required to obtain a warrant from a judge before collecting a DNA sample from a person charged with a felony. And he worries that innocent people's inclusion in the database could be held against them by employers, insurers or others.

Crist dismissed the concerns of civil libertarians: "We need to protect first and make sure that our people are safe."

But for now at least, the new law is symbolic: The change hinges on the state receiving enough money to store and track all those samples, and the Legislature didn't provide any money, according to Heather Smith, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The cost of the program is so high that it will be phased in over 10 years. Not until 2016, for example, will the state require DNA samples in felony drug arrests.

Among those celebrating the enactment of the law was Hilary Sessions of Valrico, whose daughter, Tiffany, disappeared 20 years ago at age 20 while attending the University of Florida.

"It's going to make a big difference in terms of allowing law enforcement to solve cases a lot faster," Sessions said. "It's great for all the families of missing children so we can get resolution of their cases."

The sponsor of the bill (SB 2276), Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, is a former Alachua County sheriff who investigated Tiffany Sessions' disappearance.

The FDLE said it receives about 230 "hits" each month in which a DNA sample helps solve a pending case. More than half a million samples are in the state database.

A Senate analysis of the bill noted that taking DNA from people accused of crimes has raised constitutional issues in other states. The report said Virginia's DNA law was upheld by that state's Supreme Court, but a similar law was struck down in Minnesota in 2006.

The only legislator in either chamber who cast a roll-call vote against the bill is Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey.

Reiterating his opposition, Legg said: "This is genetic information. For government to take that from individuals who have not been convicted of a crime, I think, expands government too much."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

New Florida law requires police to collect DNA in felony cases 06/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 5:12pm]
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