HARRISBURG — A bill that would expand the authority of police in Pennsylvania to take DNA samples from many suspects before they are convicted of crimes won approval from a key legislative panel Tuesday.
The House Judiciary Committee approved it, 23-2, but only after making changes to reflect criticism that the proposed DNA sampling would be too broad and invasive.
One amendment would bar police from entering the DNA samples into a state or national database until a suspect is held for court at a preliminary hearing or waives his right to the hearing.
“That more closely conforms this bill with the law in the state of Maryland,” whose pre-conviction DNA testing law was upheld by a narrowly divided Supreme Court this year, said Tom Dymek, the committee’s executive director.
The committee also tacked on an amendment designed to make it easier for suspects who are acquitted or whose cases are dismissed to get their DNA records expunged through the county courts where they were charged.
Local prosecutors would have 30 days to contest such requests and prove that the records should remain in government computer files.
“That’s a problem. ... They’re not convicted,” said Andy Hoover, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is opposing the legislation on grounds that it would invade the privacy of people before they have their day in court.
Proponents say a more comprehensive DNA database could help ensure that crimes are solved more swiftly while helping to exonerate more people convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, was approved in its original form by the Senate in June.
It now goes to the full House, although debate there isn’t expected before December.
Pileggi’s spokesman, Erik Arneson, called the House version “a reasonable compromise.”
More than half the states allow DNA testing for suspects arrested for serious crimes.
Current Pennsylvania law requires the collection of DNA samples by a cheek swab from people convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors.
Pileggi’s bill would expand the list of covered crimes to include such offenses as simple assault and criminal trespass, and tie the application of the law to the arrest instead of a conviction.
The state attorney general’s office and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association both endorse the bill.
But the Pennsylvania State Police have urged lawmakers to retain the present post-conviction policy and expand DNA testing to include “gateway” crimes that may foster earlier apprehension of career criminals.