No change to DNA policy until 2015

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Nico Savidge
Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Law enforcement and civil liberties advocates clashed last month over a provision in the state budget that will expand the collection of DNA samples.

Under the law, police will start taking DNA swabs from anyone arrested on suspicion of felony charges, rather than waiting for a conviction.

But if you're looking for big changes to how local police will operate in the wake of the budget, there won't be anything to see until spring 2015.

The provision goes into effect March 1 of that year, 21 months after Gov. Scott Walker signed the state budget into law at the end of June.

So while analysts and officials in Madison formulate new policies and get ready for a wave of new DNA samples, local police departments and sheriff's offices are essentially on standby.

“There's a lot of work that's going on right now, but it won't affect law enforcement for quite some time,” said Brian O'Keefe, administrator for the Division of Law Enforcement Services at the state Department of Justice.

The Janesville Police Department has not changed any of its policies and is awaiting direction from the state, Chief David Moore said.

“Once the law is in place and protocols are defined, then we'll respond accordingly,” Moore said.

Preparing officers

In the months leading up to the policy's effective date, the Department of Justice will get local law enforcement ready with a series of trainings and online instructions, O'Keefe said.

That's similar to what the department did when legislators passed Wisconsin's concealed-carry law, O'Keefe said.

Officials from the state crime lab, the departments of justice and corrections, and legal experts will start meeting later this month to work on implementing the law, O'Keefe said.

Once the new policy is rolled out, Moore said, DNA collection would probably be included in the process of booking a suspect into custody—much like fingerprinting or taking a mugshot.

Moore estimated the number of people arrested on felony charges in Janesville is in the 600s.

Adding a DNA swab to booking won't be a difficult change for officers, Moore said.

“It's a very simple and quick process,” he said. “We're talking about a matter of minutes.”

Building capacity

The delay gives the state's crime lab time to hire and train new staff, which will handle an estimated five-fold increase in DNA samples to process each year, O'Keefe said.

Today, authorities take a DNA sample once someone has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor crime. Officers can also get DNA with a search warrant or if someone gives a sample voluntarily, Moore said.

Under the new policy, though, authorities will send a sample to the crime lab once a judge determines there's probable cause to hold someone suspected of committing a felony.

Wisconsin's crime lab is expecting to go from processing 12,000 samples each year to 68,000 annually in the first years of the law, O'Keefe said.

To handle that increase, the crime lab will hire eight new scientist, a process that will take 15 months, he said.

The lab will also hire several forensic technicians and fingerprint identification specialists, O'Keefe said.

Open to challenge?

Like local police departments, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is waiting to see how the state will implement DNA collection.

Although authorities say the change will lead to more arrests and convictions, civil liberties groups such as the ACLU say it amounts to an unreasonable search of people who have not been convicted.

Similar laws in other states have been challenged on constitutional grounds.

One case, Maryland v. King, reached the Supreme Court this year, where a majority of justices decided the swabs are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty did not say if the organization was planning a legal challenge here.

How police implement the change will be key, Ahmuty said.

“If they set it up in a way that violates Maryland v. King, we might very well bring an as-applied challenge,” Ahmuty said. “But we won't know that until they set it up.”

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