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Panel backs DNA sampling in minor offenses

A panel of New Jersey lawmakers yesterday approved a bill that would require people found guilty of "disorderly persons offenses," including shoplifting and vandalism, to give saliva samples to the state's DNA database of criminal offenders.

A panel of New Jersey lawmakers yesterday approved a bill that would require people found guilty of "disorderly persons offenses," including shoplifting and vandalism, to give saliva samples to the state's DNA database of criminal offenders.

The bill cleared the Senate Law and Public Safety and Veterans' Affairs Committee by a unanimous vote and now moves to the full Senate. The Assembly has yet to hear it.

In New Jersey, disorderly conduct applies to a broad range of offenses that don't qualify as crimes under the state constitution. Disorderly persons offenses are considered so minor that those so charged have no right to a trial by jury.

Supporters argue the bill has great potential.

"DNA fingerprinting is an invaluable tool that allows our law enforcement community to quickly identify suspects, convict the guilty, and exonerate the innocent," said Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D., Hudson), a sponsor of the bill with Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen).

"By expanding it to include those convicted of disorderly persons offenses, we can further bolster the database and provide investigators with new leads into currently unsolvable cases. This technology has made our streets safer and our criminal-justice system fairer."

Sacco was a sponsor of the 1995 legislation that authorized law enforcement officials to collect DNA material from certain violent sex offenders to create New Jersey's DNA database.

Since then, the law has been expanded to include all convicted felons and people adjudicated delinquent or found not guilty by reason of insanity for a crime of the first, second, third or fourth degree.

As of January, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were among 44 states to require convicted felons to provide DNA samples to a state database, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All 50 states require DNA samples from convicted sex offenders. Nine require DNA samples from those convicted of certain misdemeanors, such as sex offenses or offenses involving a child victim. Eleven allow DNA samples to be taken from people who have been arrested but not yet convicted.

In the fall, a version of the current New Jersey bill also included people arrested for certain violent crimes. That effort failed, in part, over concerns that people who were arrested but not convicted should be presumed innocent.

At the time, the state Attorney General's Office, while supporting the bill in theory, expressed concerns about logistics. For example, those found guilty of disorderly persons offenses typically face a fine in municipal court, which means a police officer might not be immediately available to take a DNA sample. The office declined yesterday to comment on the pending bill.

Critics worry that it would threaten people's rights to privacy and due process.

Deborah Jacobs, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, testified that DNA samples could reveal private information about a person's health and family relationships.

"Does New Jersey really want to have such information collected from citizens who commit such offenses as removing traffic signs, leafletting on private university campuses, shoplifting, buying cigarettes for minors, and even improperly issuing a courtesy card on behalf of law enforcement agencies?" Jacobs asked the Senate committee.

She also argued that DNA sampling could have a chilling effect on free speech, citing Bob Flisser, who was arrested in 2005 for holding a vigil for fallen Iraqi soldiers without a permit in Flemington, N.J. Flisser was initially found guilty, after which his DNA would have been sampled under the proposed law. Superior Court eventually dismissed his case, but Jacobs suggested that the fear alone of being forced to give up a DNA sample could hamper free speech.

Nancy Pinkin of the New Jersey Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association testified that the bill would unfairly target the mentally ill, whom she said were more likely to be charged with disorderly conduct.

Statewide from July to April, 334,027 people were issued summonses for disorderly persons offenses or petty disorderly persons offenses, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. The bill would cover only disorderly persons offenses; a breakdown of the numbers was not available.

It is undisputed that the state's DNA database, which won a Council of State Governments Innovation Award in 2005, has helped solve crimes. Yesterday, the database contained 184,035 samples, said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. Since September 2003, 1,755 matches have been made, including in 101 homicides and 134 robberies, resulting in 106 convictions.

"DNA evidence is the 21st century's answer to fingerprinting," Sarlo said, "and we need to empower the police and prosecutors to use it as extensively as we use physical fingerprints right now."