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Panel OKs Bill to Let Prisons Use Force in DNA Testing

Measure: Public Safety Committee approves legislation allowing officials to forcibly extract blood or saliva samples from inmates for a state database.

April 24, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A compromise bill authorizing prison officers to forcibly extract DNA blood or saliva samples from murderers, rapists and other criminals who refuse to give it up voluntarily cleared a steep hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday.

The required DNA samples are recorded in a state databank and used to identify perpetrators of unsolved crimes, some of them decades old.

However, some inmates refuse to provide samples because their DNA may expose them as participants in crime cases gone cold.

Sponsored by law enforcement and backed by Gov. Gray Davis, the bill by Senate Republican floor leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga broke a two-week stalemate and won easy 4-0 approval of the Public Safety Committee.

As an "urgent" measure, the bill would become law immediately upon Davis' signature. A spokesman for the governor said it's likely he would sign the bill if approved by the Legislature.

At its first hearing April 9, the legislation (SB 1242) stalled when it ran into the opposition of Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), a committee member. He objected to several features, including what he called a vague definition of the use of "reasonable force" by state prison and local jail guards.

Instead of killing the politically popular bill in an election year, the Democrat-dominated committee agreed to Burton's suggestion that he and Brulte try to produce a compromise. They did so.

"I believe we've been able to deal with all the issues," Brulte told the committee.

Without discussion or testimony or comment from Burton, the committee quickly approved it and sent it to the Appropriations Committee.

The heavily amended bill specifically would allow the use of reasonable force (now defined in the legislation), require the videotaping of cases in which an inmate is removed from a cell by force, and direct prison supervisors to authorize use of force in writing before the DNA sample of blood is drawn or the mouth swabbed.

Law enforcement officials can seek a court order for use of reasonable force, but they say Superior Court judges are hesitant to grant these orders.

Under the bill, a court order no longer would be needed.

Since 1998, violent felons and certain other criminals have been required to provide a DNA sample and thumb and palm prints.

Failure to do so can result in denial of parole or being tried for a misdemeanor, which typically is punished by a $500 fine and six months behind bars. Conviction of a misdemeanor is of little consequence to convicts who will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Citing figures from the state Department of Justice, Brulte has testified that about 16,000 eligible prisoners either have refused to give specimens or have not been asked. A sampling of a handful of prisons, he said, indicates there are 3,000 inmates who have refused to give a specimen, including at least 300 hard-core felons.

Some inmates have been freed on parole without providing DNA, which is a violation of the law, Brulte said.

In the original bill, Burton objected that the definition of reasonable force was so vague that it could result in unnecessarily harsh treatment of prisoners.

Under the compromise, reasonable force would be that which an "objective, trained and competent correctional employee, faced with similar facts and circumstances, would consider necessary and reasonable to gain compliance" with DNA requirements.

Some proponents of the bill have insisted that the Department of Corrections has had the authority all along to use reasonable force in securing DNA samples. Earlier this month, four months after the bill was introduced, the department announced it intended to adopt policy regulations by Jan. 1 on the use of reasonable force to obtain DNA samples.

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