Maryland's DNA law goes to supreme court

Does taking DNA at arrest violate right to privacy

BALTIMORE - 22 year old Katie Sepich was supposed to change the world; full of joy, love and inspiration, the grad student was well on her way.

"We used to say if Katie loved you she loved you like a freight train.  She was always there for those that she loved.   She was joyful, she was determined and she was incredibly bright," said her mother Jayann.

But it was August of 2003 when her bright light was extinguished.

After an argument with her boyfriend one night, Katie opted to walk home, it was the last time her family would ever hear from her.

Sepich was raped, murdered and her body burned.

Sepich's mother explained her case would go unsolved at first.

The killer's DNA was left at the scene, underneath Katie's fingernails as she fought for her life.

That sample sitting in the national DNA database with no match for more than three years until the state passed a law allowing police to collect DNA upon arrest of certain crimes.

Katie's killer was picked up in a burglary three years later, swabbed, matched and eventually convicted for killing the 22 year old; case finally closed.

"We would have had justice three years sooner and that would have been incredibly important for our family because we've learned that justice does bring healing," said Jayann.

That peace would have come sooner if a law expanding DNA collections to arrestees was passed sooner.

It is that kind of victim closure which prompted Maryland to pass a similar law in 2009.

As of April, 2012, collecting the DNA of people arrested for violent crimes or burglary has netted 203 hits in the DNA database, and to date, 36 convictions; closing cases primarily of previous burglaries in our area but also cold case rapes.

 One of those rapes is from 2003 in Salisbury, now the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case.

"I expect they will uphold our DNA collection statute and I would expect that to be a nine to nothing decision."

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler is confident the state will beat the challenge of whether collecting DNA before conviction is an infringement on the right to privacy.

This is the 21st century and a DNA swab is simply the new fingerprint he said.

"Nobody ever dreamed that this was not constitutional if you look at what the police can do already.  That is at the time of arrest right now, a defendant can and is handcuffed, their body is searched,  if there is a car their car can be searched, if they are in their house their house can be searched.  The Supreme Court says they can take a blood sample with a needle, the Supreme Court says they can strip search you, everybody gets fingerprinted...clearly they can put a Q-tip on the side of your cheek for one second to solve heinous cold cases."

Maryland isn't the only state affected by this Supreme Court case, there are 25 other state's that have passed similar laws expanding their DNA collection and because of it, law enforcement has been able to close cold cases in rapes, murders and other violent crimes,  but some say it comes at an incredibly steep price.

Stephen Mercer is with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and part of the team that will argue the other side of this case in front of the Supreme Court.

Before 2009, the state took DNA from convicted criminals, now he says it is taking it from people still presumed innocent and before their right to a fair trial.

"You're going to end up with a society that is dramatically different than the one that our founding fathers created.  The fourth amendment and article 26 [Maryland] were intended to place an obstacle between the exercise of police power and citizens," Mercer said.

Taking DNA from those simply arrested removes a historical firewall the defense attorney says, and if the defense is that it can solve a crime, how far could or would the court let police go.

"When someone is arrested, say for a DWI, the police can't go out and collect all of their bank records to see if they are embezzling from their employer.  So even when a person is arrested, they're presumed to be innocent."

It is a compelling argument the Supreme Court justices agreed they would hear in November, the constitutionality of which could have massive implications nationwide by exonerating previously convicted felons via this collection method, or solidifying the expanded use of a 21st century tool.

For Katie Sepich's family who have devoted their lives to expanding this law, the decision is clear.

"Our family knows the pain of burying a much loved daughter and this law could literally save the lives of hundreds if not thousands of others across this country.  We know it can, we know it can save lives.  That's why it is so important to us.  I just feel there are other mothers who don't have to go through what I've gone through."

A view certainly part of a compelling national argument that will take place in February and decide whether or not Maryland's law is the law of the land.

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