A “game changer?” Starting April 1st, big changes to how the state collects DNA from those arrested, convicted

MADISON (WITI) -- Criminals, consider yourself warned. Freedom isn't the only thing you'll soon be giving up if you're arrested. Starting April, 1st 2015, big changes in how the state collects DNA from offenders.  A new law is being called a "game changer" and a possible "cold case killer" by some, but not everyone is happy about it.

Recently, FOX6 News got an exclusive tour of the State Crime Lab in Madison.  Starting next week, the Department of Justice will be moving into a newly constructed DNA lab.

"When you think of the scope of science, it`s been pretty recent that we`ve been analyzing DNA the way we have," data bank supervisor Jennifer Naugle said.

Naugle showed FOX6 News new rooms where a slew of new employees will move in.  Excitement is building.

"For us specifically in this unit, it`s just providing investigative leads.  That`s really our goal is to do that type of service,"  Naugle said.

Currently, every time a new felon is convicted, a swab is taken from inside their cheek.  It is tested inside the State Crime Lab, where analysts create a DNA profile.  Using a database, scientists look to see if that DNA was found at the scene of an unsolved crime.

"We talk to our scientists about it all the time. When the young lady is walking through the mall, texting with her head down, she doesn't realize the night before she was never sexually assaulted because of the great work the scientists did the week before identifying the guy who is now off the street," Brian O'Keefe with the Department of Justice said.

Just last week, Omar Aldape made his first court appearance in Racine County for a heinous sexual assault from 2013.  In Milwaukee County, Johnny Bynum is charged with second degree sexual assault for a crime from back in 2007. Both men were forced to provide a DNA sample for unrelated felony convictions involving drugs.  When those samples were tested, both had positive hits relating to their now more serious charges.

"We will save lives. We will save people from becoming sexual assault victims, shooting victims because of the evidence that is collected and out there," O'Keefe said.

In April, felons will no longer be the only ones forced to give up their DNA.  The collection is expanding and will now include ALL criminal misdemeanor convictions as well.

"Gary Ridgeway was the Green River killer.  One of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history.  If the rules in place now were in place in the early 80s, literally 60 to 70 women would be alive.  Because the only thing he had was a misdemeanor conviction for prostitution," O'Keefe said.

An explosion in the number of samples sent to Madison is expected.  Currently, with just the DNA samples of felons, the lab creates 10,000-12,000 profiles a year.  Of those, more than 550 positive hits were made on unsolved cases.

With new DNA expansion, the number of samples could jump to an estimated 60,000 samples per year.  Thousands more unsolved crimes could soon be solved.

"That kind of power, to save that many lives, that many sexual assaults, is incredible," O'Keefe said.

The expansion however, is not without controversy.

Rep. David Craig (R-Big Bend) points out that also included in the law, for the first time in the state's history, DNA swabs will be taken from suspects who are accused, but not yet convicted of a violent crime.

"I think there is a strong contingent of us that say before they have their due process exhausted in the court system, they should maintain something as personal as DNA. We have a job to balance security, and safety versus individual liberty for those who have not had their day in court," Rep. Craig said.

Rep. Craig says an even more expansive plan was first introduced by Governor Scott Walker when the idea was first brought forward in 2013.  The idea of taking a person's DNA without a conviction did not sit well with some conservative Republicans.  As a compromise, the list of offenses where DNA can be collected upon arrest was knocked down to just the most violent crimes on the book.

The ACLU says the compromise did not go far enough.

"One's personal autonomy, one's  privacy can get eroded by a thousand cuts," ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty said.

The ACLU says they have a laundry list of issues with the new law.  At the top, privacy concerns -- especially for those whose DNA is collected, but they're never convicted.

"The state of Wisconsin is not ready for this," Ahmuty said.

The state says samples collected upon arrest will only be tested when probable cause is established.  If a suspect is never convicted, after a year, their sample will be removed.

"There is no record you were even here.  It's all gone.  The samples are destroyed," O'Keefe said.

Other issues raised by the ACLU: Whether the state can afford the influx of new samples, and whether the explosion will cause a backlog of work that will drag out turnaround time.  This has been a problem in the past.

"Frankly, I wonder if the criminal justice system is up to the task," Ahmuty said.

"We're absolutely ready.  The governor and the Legislature were very good. They gave us the resources to move forward, " O'Keefe said.

In anticipation of the increase in case load, the Department of Justice has hired 21 new employees.  DNA analysts are already trained and will begin moving into their lab next week.

"People who don't commit crimes are not going to have anything in our database.  That's just the way it is," O'Keefe said.

It's an expansion that may be a cold case killer, but it's being watched very closely.

"We are a piece of this pie, of this case. We are a sliver, but sometimes if that is all that you`ve got, the realization of what we do everyday is really important and everyone takes it very serious," Naugle.

The state says your DNA is the same as your fingerprint, and the Supreme Court has backed them up. The nation's highest court ruled in 2013 law enforcement officials can take DNA upon arrest. There have also been questions raised as to how the state will pay for this expansion. The Department of Justice says fees for swabs and testing are paid by offenders -- making the program self-sufficient.


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1 Comment

  • Heather

    I have not been convicted of the felony charge I am in court for yet.But the police want me to do a DNA swab tomorrow.
    It is my first felony charge.I’m not a violent offender and have nothing on my record.is this within the law to do?

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