Compromise On DNA Collection May Not Be Enough For Legislative Black Caucus

By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS (March 14, 2008) - In an effort to alleviate civil liberties concerns, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and the House Judiciary Committee are working on amendments to the governor's bill to collect DNA samples from everyone arrested for violent crimes and other offenses.

But members of the Legislative Black Caucus remained uncertain Thursday about whether an amendment to keep DNA information out of the state database until the case is heard in court would be enough to undo opposition to the bill.

If the bill passes with the amendment, officers would still take samples at the time of arrest, as in the original bill, but that information could not be entered into the DNA database unless an individual was indicted.

The governor has been working with members of the committee and the caucus to address legitimate concerns with the original bill, said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. The bill is one of several crime-fighting initiatives proposed by O'Malley this session.

Proponents say that maintaining a database of DNA samples from people who are arrested could make it easier to quickly identify suspects in other crimes.

The black caucus interrupted the House's normal morning proceedings to discuss the changes in the House lounge. But caucus members decided to meet again later when they could not reach a decision on the issue before Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, asked them to return to finish the regular session.

Caucus members called the amendment a compromise to scale back the DNA collection in order to gain support from the caucus, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. All three groups oppose the bill.

They say it conflicts with the constitutional presumption of innocence that is the right of every individual arrested in connection with a crime.

The NAACP remains "vehemently opposed" to the legislation, said Marvin Cheatham, Baltimore City Branch president for the organization.

He strongly discouraged the Legislative Black Caucus from supporting the bill because of the constitutional problems it raises.

What legislators do not seem to understand, he said, is that DNA samples are not equivalent to taking finger prints.

"The bill still basically violates our civil liberties," he said.

Cindy Boersma, legislative director for the ACLU of Maryland, said her organization also continues to oppose the bill.

Although she recognized that some efforts were being made to tone down the bill, Boersma said the amendments still do not address the fundamental concerns the ACLU has, namely the warrantless DNA seizure.

Both Boersma and Cheatham said the genetic collection would be disproportionately applied to racial minorities, who they said are arrested in connection with violent crimes at a rate three times higher than that for whites.

Thursday's impromptu meetings of the caucus were too rushed to yield an official position on the bill and amendment, but members plan to meet Monday afternoon to fully evaluate the legislation.

The caucus needs time to consider the amendment before coming to a decision on its position, said Delegate Aisha Braveboy, D-Prince George's.

The legislation has enough support now to move out of the Judiciary Committee, said Delegate Gerron Levi, D-Prince George's. But a vote was delayed in order to get input from the black caucus.

A committee vote on the bill is expected Friday, but Levi said she would try to push the date back to allow for input from the caucus.

Caucus members agreed that unanimity on the issue is important, not only to the future of the amendment, but also for the presentation of a united front from the caucus.

"We've got to hear everybody's view," said Delegate Veronica Turner, D-Prince George's. "It's important."

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