DNA-collection bill signed into law

DENVER — Area legislators hailed Thursday’s passage of Colorado’s version of Katie’s Law  as a means of protecting the public and exonerating the innocent.

“We created legislation that is going to save people’s lives,” Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez said Thursday, just before Gov. Bill Ritter inked Senate Bill 241 into law. “I couldn’t be more pleased or excited to see the bill go through.”

Tipton, with Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction and Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, sponsored the bill, which requires DNA samples from anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony.

The law is named for Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old New Mexico woman raped and murdered in 2003. Authorities collected her killer’s DNA from her body, but had no match. At the time, they did not know that Gabriel Avilla later arrested for burglary, had also killed Sepich. Avilla skipped bail after his burglary arrest. Only after he was caught and convicted three years later was a DNA sample taken and matched to the Sepich slaying.

Her family had to wait until 2006 for justice — and her mother Jayann then joined the push for new laws requiring anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony to submit DNA samples. There are versions of DNA-collection laws in more than 20 states; some of these predate Katie’s Law.

“I’m so excited and happy,” Jayann Sepich said Thursday. “It’s a wonderful day for the people of Colorado.”

The state will begin developing the systems necessary to collect the DNA in July. Agencies will begin collecting DNA from felony arrestees in September of 2010. Funding comes from an initial $75,000 appropriation for start-up costs and a $2.50 surcharge for felony and misdemeanor convictions, as well as traffic tickets.

The law requires the collection of 13 DNA strands, out of some three billion DNA markers. Tipton said the DNA collected is simply a separator, the width of which is unique to every human being.

He likened the DNA collection to the taking of fingerprints, which does not affect a defendant’s presumption of innocence.

“This is just an identifier. It’s going to exonerate people who are innocent and it’s a tool that will allow us to convict the guilty as well,” Tipton said.

He said law enforcement agencies can’t tell such things as height, eye color, medical history, or even sex from what is collected, and the law also makes provisions for expunging the DNA records of defendants who are either cleared or a felony, or who instead wind up being charged with a misdemeanor.

The bill once required the state to pay $25,000 if records weren’t properly expunged when required, but that provision was eliminated amid concerns about unfairly burdening smaller agencies.

“I really don’t see it as an invasion of privacy, in that if you’re not guilty, the data is destroyed,” State Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus said. Isgar also supported the bill.

Critics contend collecting DNA upon arrest reverses a person’s constitutional presumption of innocence and puts their privacy at risk before they are convicted. The American Civil Liberties Union objected in 2008 to federal legislation that would’ve created incentives for states to collect DNA samples from arrestees.

According to the Associated Press, Aurora lawmaker Morgan Carroll said the U.S. Supreme Court  ruled in 1989 that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their bodily fluids. Carroll told the AP she believes Katie’s Law could be struck down if it comes before the high court.

“I would call that hair-splitting, given the information we’re getting (from the DNA sample),” Tipton countered, pointing to other legal cases, including a 9th Circuit Court ruling that found such collection was not an infringement on rights.

He also said the use of the DNA collected is so restricted that if a person who is cleared of a felony requests that it be expunged, it cannot be used even if that person is again arrested.

“We wouldn’t have supported it if we felt it was going to be an infringement,” he said. (Montrose Press, 5.21.2009, Katharhynn Heidelberg)

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