Westchester Prosecutors and Police Cheer Cuomo's Push to Expand DNA Databank

Local law enforcement leaders say an expanded DNA databank would help bring more criminals to justice and even prevent some crimes. Civil libertarians say more safeguards are needed to ensure the integrity of DNA evidence.

False advertising. Possession of graffiti instruments. Fortune-telling. Issuing a bad check.

On the surface, those misdemeanors have little in common. But if Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets state lawmakers to go along with his plan to expand the state DNA database, people convicted of those crimes will be required to submit DNA to authorities.

While most of the reaction to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's State of the State speech focused on casinos and ambitious economic revitalization plans, law enforcement officials cheered the governor's DNA proposal, while civil liberties groups urged caution.

Under current law, offenders must submit DNA if they're convicted of a felony or one of 36 specific misdemeanors, a list that includes crimes like petty larceny. Earlier this year, the state senate passed a bill that would require DNA samples from all misdemeanor convictions. That bill was never reconciled with an Assembly version that included more safeguards and granted defense attorneys similar access to databank records.

Like other law enforcement leaders, Westchester County District Attorney Janet Difiore applauded the governor's push to expand the database.

"Collecting DNA from all convicted criminal defendants who are found guilty of felonies and Penal Law misdemeanors will go far in helping our state's law enforcement prevent future crimes and resolve pending cases," the district attorney said in a statement.

Collecting DNA is as simple as swabbing saliva from a convict's mouth, a process that's "easier to take, and quicker, than fingerprints," said Capt. John Telesca of the Port Chester Police Department. Authorities would use DNA samples the same way they use fingerprints, Telesca said -- if a suspect's DNA is already in the databank from an earlier conviction, law enforcement can quickly make a match from physical evidence left at a crime scene.

That's a fact frequently underlined by advocates: The existing database has aided more than 13,000 investigations, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

"It's a test of truth and it can only help the innocent and harm the guilty," Telesca said, "and after all, isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?"

If the DNA databank is expanded, lawmakers should make every effort to include safeguards against things like contamination and fraud, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"We’re encouraged by the governor’s recognition of the need for safeguards in the state’s DNA database," Lieberman said in a statement issued after Cuomo's speech. "Sadly, New York isn’t CSI and in the real world DNA is not infallible. The possibility for error, fraud and abuse exists at every step from the moment that DNA is collected. We need rigorous quality assurance protocols to ensure the integrity of the state’s DNA databank."

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Dina Sciortino January 05, 2012 at 03:30 PM
My questions would be how much it would cost to expand the DNA system and whether it would payoff to get samples for misdemeanors like petty larceny. Since there is so much retail in White Plains, my police blotter is often filled with petty larceny charges. Who would be responsible for the cost for DNA taking equipment, processing and storing the DNA?
Nik Bonopartis January 05, 2012 at 10:01 PM
They take DNA for petty larceny convictions right now. It's one of those things that kind of flew under the radar, and most people are surprised when they hear about it. Cuomo's advocating for collecting DNA on *all* misdemeanor convictions, even the stuff people consider small-time crime. I think that's what gets some people freaked out, along with the potential privacy issues. Westchester County has its own crime lab, so the situation here isn't as bad as it is in some upstate communities, where they have to send DNA to the state police lab in Albany and often wait for months to get samples processed. I don't know exactly how it's funded, and I don't know how the increased load would impact DNA processing in Westchester...but those are both great questions and a good reason to do a follow-up. I'll keep those questions in mind next time around.
Dina Sciortino January 05, 2012 at 11:19 PM
Yes, I did not know that. Thank you so much for all this info!


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