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State Lends a Strong Hand to Crime-Fighting With DNA

With Prop. 69's passage, police officials expect genetic fingerprinting to expand nationwide.

November 09, 2004|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

For years, criminal investigators have seen it shimmering on the horizon: a new era in their grim work when they would spend less time searching for a suspect and more time tying the suspect to a crime.

DNA fingerprinting, they have argued, would fundamentally shift the odds in detective work, away from even the most cunning criminals and toward the police.

But DNA as a crime-fighting tool has not yet lived up to those expectations in the United States. Now police officials believe that could start to change as California begins to implement the newly passed Proposition 69.

The most populous state, now with the most aggressive DNA law in the nation, may help propel DNA use nationwide -- a prospect that cheers many police officials as much as it troubles some civil libertarians.

"California will very quickly become the 'hit' leader in the nation," said Paul Ferrara, the head of Virginia's highly regarded Division of Forensic Science, employing the term used when a DNA sample from a crime scene shares genetic markers with that of a person. "And they'll get a lot of 'hits' for crimes in other states and criminals in other states."

Proposition 69, approved by voters 62% to 38%, immediately mandates that a DNA "fingerprint" be taken from all adults and juveniles convicted of a felony, as well as all adults arrested for murder or certain sex offenses -- whether or not they are convicted. In 2009, the law expands to include any person arrested for a felony or for some misdemeanors, also regardless of a conviction.

The FBI's national databank, the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, now contains about 1.5 million names. If California is able to keep up with its new law, the state could add 1 million new names in a few years.

The law's provision to take DNA from people who are arrested but not convicted has particularly disturbed civil liberties advocates. Proposition 69 provides a way for people who are exonerated to have their DNA removed from the database, but critics say the method is cumbersome.

The American Civil Liberties Union is considering going to court to try to block the law, although legal challenges to DNA databases in other states have so far been generally unsuccessful.

By contrast, the logistical challenges of testing and recording tens of thousands of DNA samples may be more formidable, requiring considerable money and manpower. Although the law will not reach its full scope until 2009, the expansion of the database will begin immediately.

The first effect of the new law is expected to be felt in the state's massive prison system. There are more than 165,000 inmates in California prisons, the majority of whom have not been required to give a DNA sample under the state's existing law, which covers only those convicted of crimes defined as serious felonies. Under Proposition 69, all inmates will be required to give samples.

Tens of thousands of inmates are paroled annually, according to the California Department of Corrections, and thousands leave city and county lockups each day. They are at the top of law enforcement's list to sample.

"The focus right now is who's in jail, and who's in prison," said David LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn. "If somebody's going to get released today, let's get their DNA first."

Between inmates, parolees and new felony convicts, the state could in one year roughly double the 250,000 DNA "fingerprints" now in its database.

Testing will be done with Q-tip-like devices that take a sample from the lining of the inner cheek. Lance Gima, head of California's Bureau of Forensic Services, which is responsible for the state's databank, estimated the cost per test at between $50 and $60.

The first batch of swabs for Los Angeles County is expected to arrive this week, and officials from the state lab are planning to begin training before the end of the month.

Until recently, the Los Angeles Police Department was gathering so much more DNA evidence than it could process that it was buying a new refrigerated trailer every few months to store untested samples.

It wasn't alone. In 2001, New York City still had 16,000 rape kits that were untested.

Thanks primarily to federal grants, most of the backlog at the LAPD -- and in many other California jurisdictions, as well as New York and other places -- has now been processed, officials say. Gima and other officials say they think that the state will be able to handle the rapid scaling up of the database.

But the existing statewide databank is still relatively undeveloped, even as it is about to be inundated with new samples. In October, the state received an additional $9.9 million in federal money to further develop the database.

The state legislative analyst expects Proposition 69's mandate to cost nearly $20 million a year once it is fully in place. The program is to be funded primarily by raising fines for some offenses by $1 for every $10 currently levied.

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