The case for expanding “Katie’s Law,” the New Mexico law that requires DNA collection for certain felony arrests, is powerful. In 2003, Jayann Sepich’s 22-year-old daughter, Katie, died after a brutal rape and murder.
“She fought so hard for her life that she had skin and blood under her fingernails,” Sepich tells SFR.
Law-enforcement officers were able to extract DNA samples of Katie’s attacker—but at the time, Sepich says, New Mexico law allowed DNA collection only at felony convictions, not arrests.
“The man that killed our daughter was arrested three months after he killed her,” Sepich says. “But we couldn’t take his DNA then, so it was three years and three months after he killed her that he was finally convicted and incarcerated and they took his DNA.”
So Sepich and her husband, David—both registered lobbyists—began their campaign to require DNA collection upon all felony arrests. In 2006, they pushed for a bill that would do just that—but according to its sponsor, state Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Doña Ana, the bill faltered in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“There were some things that weren’t acceptable to some members,” Papen says, “so we made a compromise.”
Currently, Katie’s Law requires DNA collection upon arrest for certain felonies, mostly violent crimes and sex offenses. But Sepich says that’s not enough.
“We’ve had 173 matches in New Mexico since Katie’s Law went into effect, but we’re missing a lot of them,” Sepich says. She contrasts those figures with California’s, where a law mandating DNA collection at all felony arrests has yielded more than 14,000 matches since it became effective in 2004.
But Sepich’s campaign is gaining steam.
Today, 24 states require DNA collection, with 12 requiring it for all felony arrests. And in December, Sepich says, Gov. Susana Martinez called and said she was interested in expanding Katie’s Law, a commitment she emphasized in her Jan. 18 State of the State address. Papen’s bill—essentially a reiteration of the original bill attempted in 2006—was filed Jan. 31 with co-sponsor Sen. Vernon Asbill, R-Eddy.
But to organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, collecting DNA from felony arrestees—even those who aren’t convicted, or who are arrested for defending themselves from domestic violence, writing bad checks or participating in political demonstrations—smacks of big-government interventionism.
“It takes a foundational legal principle, innocent until proven guilty, and turns it on its head,” ACLU-New Mexico Communications Specialist Micah McCoy tells SFR. “DNA is more than a fingerprint. DNA contains your entire code; DNA is you: This is your entire genetic information that they are seizing from people, many of whom are presumably innocent.”
Though Papen points out that the DNA identifiers used for law-enforcement purposes don’t contain the entire genetic code, but rather just 13 “markers” used purely for identification against other DNA samples, McCoy says many questions remain.
“We don’t think there’s enough protection or oversight on this,” he says.
But Sara Huston Katsanis, a genetics policy analyst at Duke University, says protective measures can be inserted into DNA collection laws—such as a caveat that requires law enforcement destroy a person’s DNA sample if he or she is found innocent.
Katsanis says her main concern is whether filling already-overloaded DNA databases with even more information is actually effective in preventing crime.
“I have not seen the data to demonstrate that expansion of the database leads to more crime resolution,” Katsanis says. “Before we just add more and more and more people, I think it’s very important that we understand that it’s useful. There’s a lot of expenses going into this, possibly to the detriment of [other] casework.”
First, of course, Papen’s bill must withstand the test of the state Legislature—and possibly the lawsuits. (In 2009, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against California’s DNA collection law.)
Sepich, for one, is ready.
“I realize there will be court challenges,” Sepich says. “I think, ultimately, the US Supreme Court is going to uphold it. In the meantime, we’re saving lives.”