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An Assembly panel on Thursday approved a bill sponsored by Assembly members Joan Quigley, Vincent Prieto, Craig Coughlin, and Albert Coutinho that would increase law enforcement’s crime-fighting potential by expanding New Jersey’s DNA law to require samples from individuals arrested on suspicion of certain violent crimes.

“New Jersey is not alone in this movement. Roughly 20 other states have expanded their laws to include anyone arrested on suspicion of these crimes. This is an important step in bringing wanted criminals to justice,” said Quigley (D-Bergen/Hudson).

Current DNA law only requires samples to be taken from individuals convicted of certain violent crimes.

The bill (A-2594) approved today would amend the state’s “DNA Database and Databank Act of 1994” to require DNA samples from anyone arrested on suspicion of these crimes: murder; manslaughter; second degree aggravated assault when the person attempts to cause or causes serious bodily injury to another or causes bodily injury while fleeing or attempting to flee a law enforcement officer; kidnapping; luring or enticing a child; engaging in sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the morals of a child; or aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal sexual contact or an attempt to commit any of these offenses.

“This is a smart move given the fact that statistics show that roughly 40 percent of burglaries and other non-violent crimes are being committed by someone who has already committed a violent crime,” said Prieto (D-Bergen/Hudson).

“DNA is the most important 21st century crime-fighting tool we have,” said Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “It’s reliability is an important factor in meting out justice both for victims and those who might be falsely accused.”

“The move to expand our DNA database works on both sides of the equation. It will increase law enforcement’s ability to track down and convict otherwise elusive, and possibly violent, criminals, while also helping to exonerate anyone that may have been wrongfully accused of a crime,” said Coutinho (D-Essex/Union).

The FBI uses a system called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) to provide for the storage and exchange of DNA records on a national basis. CODIS consists of a “forensic” index containing DNA profiles from crime scene evidence. It also has an “offender” index, with DNA profiles of convicted offenders. By electronically comparing DNA profiles from those indexes, analysts often are able to obtain “hits” (or matches) between DNA found at crime scenes and DNA profiles of convicted offenders. Analysts also can link multiple, unsolved crimes to a single perpetrator by comparing profiles in the forensic database.

Testifying in favor of the bill today was Jayann Sepich, the mother of Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old graduate student at New Mexico State University who was brutally raped and murdered in August of 2003. Although no strong suspects emerged, skin and blood under her fingernails produced a full DNA profile, which was uploaded to CODIS.

In 2006, the DNA profile produced a match with Gabriel Avilla who had been convicted for several other crimes. If New Mexico had required a DNA sample for Avilla’s felony arrest in November of 2003, investigators might have solved Katie’s murder sooner and caught Avilla before he was able to roam the streets for three years.

The case inspired “Katie’s Law” which New Mexico passed in 2006, requiring DNA for most felony arrests to be included in the database. Since then, roughly a dozen other states have passed similar laws. Just yesterday, Illinois passed their version of the law.

The bill also stipulates that if the charges against a person from whom a DNA sample was collected are dismissed, or if a person is acquitted at trial, the sample would be destroyed, and all related records expunged, upon request by an individual.

In order to ensure compliance with DNA collection, the bill would also make it a crime of the fourth degree for any person who knowingly refuses to submit to the collection of a blood or biological sample. A crime of the fourth degree is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 18 months, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

The bill was released by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee and now heads to the full Assembly. An identical version has already been approved by the Senate.