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Pennsylvania criminal defense may face expanded role of DNA

Lawmakers on the lookout for new ways to fight crime may feel compelled to support proposals that promise sweeping protections for society. In Pennsylvania, a bill has just moved to the Senate after the House approved it with a 157 to 32 vote. Writers of the bill expect the new law to reduce violent crime and protect the innocent from false accusations. However, some criminal defense and civil rights advocates feel the bill goes too far.

The bill requires those convicted of certain offenses to submit to a cheek swab for DNA testing. Such DNA samples would then be consulted when a person is charged with a violent crime, potentially allowing investigators to solve crimes more rapidly and remove violent offenders from the streets. Doing so, lawmakers contend, will reduce the chances of a person committing serial crimes.

Currently, anyone convicted of a felony must give a DNA sample through a cheek swab. The new law would expand the testing to include anyone convicted of a first-degree misdemeanors and others convicted of 15 second-degree misdemeanors. In all, about 100 misdemeanors would then carry the obligation to submit a DNA sample, including crimes such as littering and shoplifting. Opponents of the bill argue that not only will the new law cost tax payers millions of dollars, it excessively includes too many minor offenses.

DNA evidence is often the staple of a conviction, but in some cases the evidence is unreliable. Mistakes in handling, interpreting or preserving the chain of custody can result in false accusations. Innocent lives are frequently damaged when misinterpreted DNA results convince juries to convict. If this Pennsylvania law goes into effect, those accused of crimes will benefit from a strong criminal defense to fight the inclusion of DNA evidence that juries often find to be powerfully convincing.

Source: U.S. News & World Report, "Pennsylvania Legislature Eyes Wider DNA Sampling of Convicts", Mark Scolforo, June 23, 2017

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