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Public Safety

DNA Sampling Gives Rise To Court Battle

Last year, the state of California began requiring police to take DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony. The practice was the result of voters passing proposition 69.

Laws that require DNA sampling upon arrest are called Katie's Laws, named for New Mexico murder victim Katie Sepich.

This week Katie's mom visited San Diego County to promote DNA testing upon felony arrest. But Katie's Law in California faces a court challenge.


Life Technologies, located in Carlsbad, tests and manufactures forensic DNA kits. This week the company hosted Jayann Sepich. She is the mother of Katie Sepich who died in 2003, and she has had a grim experience with crime and DNA evidence.

"My daughter Katie was a graduate student at New Mexico State University," said Sepich. "And she was brutally raped and murdered, and her body was set on fire and abandoned at an old city dump."

Sepich says her daughter fought hard against her killer because she had his skin and blood under her fingernails. Three years later, police matched that DNA with a man who'd just been convicted of burglary. The same man had been arrested for burglary just three months after Katie's murder, but his DNA was not taken then because there was no conviction. That experience set Jayann Sepich on a quest to get states all over the country to pass Katie's Law.

"Katie's Law is very simple," she said. "It just says that when a person is arrested for a felony, that at the time of booking when fingerprints and mugshots are taken, the inside of the cheek is swabbed -- it's called a buckle swab -- and from that swab a DNA profile is extracted and uploaded into a database."

When Sepich began her crusade, only five states took DNA samples upon arrest. Now, she says, 23 states and the federal government take samples for some or all felony arrests.


Proposition 69, which is California's version of Katie's Law, was passed in 2004. Last year the law began requiring police to collect DNA samples from all people arrested for felonies. At that point, the ACLU filed its suit.

The ACLU of Northern California argues collecting DNA samples from people under arrest is an unreasonable search that violates the Fourth Amendment.

Michael Risher is their attorney.

"Our lawsuit also says that analyzing a person's genetic blueprint, and putting it in this enormous nationwide criminal database, violates our fundamental right to privacy under the 14th Amendment," he said.

The dispute over sampling the DNA of people under arrest hinges on whether forensic DNA samples really are genetic blueprints.

Jayann Sepich said police examine only DNA 13 markers, which don't reveal any personal characteristics aside from gender.

"So, it's no different than a fingerprint. It's only used for identification. There's no private information that can be disclosed at the database," she said.

Risher argues the DNA samples could be mined for personal information, and that could lead to abuse.

"You can imagine if J. Edgar Hoover had a piece of Martin Luther King Jr.'s DNA, it would have been a strong temptation for him, using today's technology, to analyze it," said Risher. "To see if he could say 'Well look, he's prone to this or that.'"

Katie's Law in California has been expensive. The Legislative Analyst's Office predicted implementing Proposition 69 would cost $20 million annually.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gores says his office had to hire 10 more DNA specialists to deal with the increased caseload. Gore says it's been worth the cost.

"Back in 2004 we had 19 hits against the state database. That means for all of the unknown samples we sent to Sacramento, 19 times they came back and said 'That DNA belongs to Joe Blow.' This year we're on track to be a little over 400 hits. So there are 381 cases that would not have been solved otherwise," said Gore.

The suit brought against Katie's Law will be heard in July by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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