Assembly Panel Advances Bill To Expand NJ’s DNA Database

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TRENTON – An Assembly committee advanced a bill to expand New Jersey’s DNA database on Thursday.

Currently, the state collects DNA samples of individuals who have been convicted of violent crimes such as murder, sexual assault, aggravated assault or kidnapping. Those found not guilty by reason of insanity are also required to submit samples.

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Under bill A-2594, anyone arrested for an offense covered under the current DNA collection law would be required to submit a sample before they are released from custody. In the event that charges are dismissed or resolved through acquittal at trial, the individual may petition to have his or her DNA sample destroyed and have records of it expunged.

“DNA evidence is the most accurate tool for law enforcement to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspect,” said Asm. Jon Bramnick (R-Union.) “By expanding the DNA database, we allow law enforcement to efficiently and effectively apprehend the right suspect.”

“DNA is the most important 21st century crime-fighting tool we have,” said Asm. Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).

“The move to expand our DNA database works on both sides of the equation,” said Asm. Albert Coutinho (D-Union). “It will increase law enforcement’s ability to track down and convict otherwise elusive, and possibly violent, criminals, while also helping to exonerate anyone that may have been wrongfully accused of a crime,”

The FBI uses a system called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) to provide for the storage and exchange of DNA records on a national basis. CODIS consists of a “forensic” index containing DNA profiles from crime scene evidence. It also has an “offender” index, with DNA profiles of convicted offenders. By electronically comparing DNA profiles from those indexes, analysts often are able to obtain “hits” (or matches) between DNA found at crime scenes and DNA profiles of convicted offenders. Analysts also can link multiple, unsolved crimes to a single perpetrator by comparing profiles in the forensic database.

Testifying in favor of the bill today was Jayann Sepich, the mother of Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old graduate student at New Mexico State University who was brutally raped and murdered in August of 2003. Although no strong suspects emerged, skin and blood under her fingernails produced a full DNA profile, which was uploaded to CODIS.

In 2006, the DNA profile produced a match with Gabriel Avilla who had been convicted for several other crimes. If New Mexico had required a DNA sample for Avilla’s felony arrest in November of 2003, investigators might have solved Katie’s murder sooner and caught Avilla before he was able to roam the streets for three years.

The case inspired “Katie’s Law” which New Mexico passed in 2006, requiring DNA for most felony arrests to be included in the database. Since then, roughly a dozen other states have passed similar laws. Just this week, Illinois passed their version of the law.

Critics of the bill argue that it is unfair to impose penalties before a person has been convicted of a crime. “It is antithetical to the founding American value of innocent until proven guilty,” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

The bill was released by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee and now heads to the full Assembly. An identical version has already been approved by the Senate.


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