A few years back, I hosted a nationally-syndicated radio program, modestly called “Bob Barr’s Laws of the Universe.” One of the laws most frequently cited during the three years I hosted the weekly show, was Law Number Three: “No matter how much information government has, it always wants more.” This came to mind recently as I read of a piece of legislation introduced in the Georgia General Assembly by Rep. Rob Teilhet, a Democrat from Smyrna and a candidate for state Attorney General.
Teilhet’s bill, HB 1033, would vastly expand the size of the DNA database already maintained by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, by empowering the state to take a DNA sample from any person who is arrested for any felony. I suspect many laypersons will wildly cheer such legislation, as yet another way to “get tough” on criminals and prevent crime. I am sure candidate Teilhet hopes the voters will perceive his legislation in such light.
It is, however, more than a little troubling that an attorney seeking to become Georgia’s top lawyer charged with protecting the civil liberties of all persons in our state, would cavalierly dismiss the serious constitutional concerns embedded in a law mandating that a person not convicted of any offense whatsoever should be forced to surrender their DNA to the government.
Supporters of this and similar measures that have been enacted in other states (including, of course, California), claim that collecting DNA samples can help solve crimes and possibly aid in identifying persons who have other charges pending against them. All that may be true; but if we start gauging the powers sought by government to gather evidence from and about individuals, against nothing more the possibility that doing so might help law enforcement, then the ink with which our country’s and our state’s constitutions were writ, might as well have been penned with disappearing ink.
A person arrested for an alleged offense has not yet been proved to have done anything wrong. He’s had no day in court, no chance to defend himself, and been afforded no opportunity to challenge the charges against him. Arrest in our state as in many others, can rest on a foundation no stronger than a fellow citizen’s opinion; perhaps one bearing a grudge. All those important, time-honored and constitutionally-based limits on government-coerced evidence are undercut by forced collection of a person’s most private information at the start of the process rather than at the end.
While Rep. Teilhet obviously has read the current law in Georgia regarding collection of DNA samples from felons (since his proposal refers to the existing statute), perhaps others who might support his bill are not yet familiar with the already-extensive database of DNA information maintained by Georgia. For example, anybody convicted of a serious offense of a sexual nature, as well as anyone incarcerated for a felony or those on probation for serious offenses, is already required to give their DNA to the state.
Teilhet, like other DNA-database advocates, attempts to sooth his critics by claiming the legislation he pushes provides adequate protection against improper use or dissemination of the DNA information, and for removing the information if a person is not later convicted. Closer examination of the current law and of Teilhet’s proposed expansion of it, however, shows clearly the “protections” are inadequate. Information collected now or under Teilhet’s legislation would be available to virtually any law enforcement or prosecution agency requesting it. And, removing the information from the database if the person is later exonerated depends solely on the person himself having the knowledge and resources to seek such remedy, rather than being the responsibility of the government itself to correct its mistake.
HB 1033 is a constitutional wolf in sheep’s clothing and should not become law.