Vermont court rules no DNA collection until conviction

by jeeg 12. July 2014 15:42

The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled in favor of more than 100 alleged offenders. The case dealt with the collection of their DNA and a suspect's right to keep their genetic material private prior to conviction.

The ruling won't overturn any convictions because the practice of collecting a suspect's DNA has been on hold since the court challenges began, but there's no way to know how many unsolved cases will remain that way due to the decision.

In a 3-2 decision issued Friday, the Vermont Supreme Court struck down a 2009 law allowing investigators to collect DNA from all felony suspects after being charged.

The law has been on hold since the state's defender general brought multiple suits which represented more than 100 alleged offenders.

Without the ruling, law enforcement could collect samples and compare a suspect's genetic material to that recovered from the scenes of unsolved crimes.

"And what the court made clear is that there's no ability to do that without a warrant, so in other words, the court needs a good legal reason to collect someone's DNA," said Dan Barrett of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

Barrett called the ruling a great decision. He says though the method could solve crimes or potentially clear wrongfully convicted individuals, it's too invasive for Vermont's constitutional privacy protections.

"The important distinction for us is when one has been accused of a crime, but not convicted. As everybody knows from watching 'Law and Order,' one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, so that has to mean something under our Constitution," said Barrett.

Barrett says a different Vermont law will still allow those who say they didn't do it to request a test of an alternate suspect.

"I think there's a greater likelihood of having people who have committed a crime not being found out," said Jerry O'Neil, a former federal prosecutor.

O'Neill says there's no way of knowing to what extent that may be the case though. He also points out that the court's justices hinted they could sign off on similar but slightly different version of the law.

"Certainly the Legislature could change the statute in such a way that it will be possible to go ahead and get those samples anyway," said O'Neill.

A key proponent of the law, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, says he hasn't read the decision yet, but will consider bringing forward a new proposal next year if re-elected.

The law did require it to be expunged if prosecutors could not prove their guilt however; the time necessary for a trial may have given investigators the opportunity to tie the suspect to a different crime.

Kyle Midura, WCAX


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