Overshooting the mark

Democrats have a way of demanding that civil liberties be respected until push comes to shove, and then find a way to benefit politically from abridging them. This Nevada legislative session and last, it has been a measure requiring that DNA samples be taken from anyone arrested—not convicted—of felonies. The bill failed at the 2011 Nevada Legislature. This year it was reintroduced as Senate Bill 243, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Smith, a Washoe County Democrat and one of our best legislators.

All of those from whom samples would be taken are, under our system of government, legally innocent at the time of the sample. How is it this Legislature is unaware of Missouri v. McNeely, decided on April 17, in which the U.S. Supreme Court forbade this type of illegal search?

In its current language, the bill provides that suspects prove their innocence in order to later have their samples destroyed. So why collect them in the first place? What is the hurry? Collection of samples can wait until convictions. U.S. citizens are not supposed to have to prove their innocence. Government must prove their guilt.

In the current fashion of naming bills for crime victims in order to pressure legislators to avoid full scrutiny of legislation, this measure is known as “Brianna’s Law,” for Brianna Denison, the tragic 2008 victim of a brutal Reno murder that engaged so many in this community. Her family members are among those lobbying for the bill. No one can blame them for their activism. Many family members of crime victims put their pain into such activities.

But as everyone who remembers that terrible case knows, a lack of DNA samples was not the problem in the case. The problem was too many DNA samples and not enough money to process them. The community started a fund raising drive and raised almost $300,000 so the Washoe County crime lab could test a large backlog of DNA samples. It was a reproach to the shortsightedness of Nevada’s anti-tax, anti-government culture, and if the legislation proposed by the family had been adequate funding for the state’s crime labs, there would have been few objections.

The family members are trying to scoop up as many people as possible to have their samples taken in indiscriminate fashion, exactly the kind of sweeping, wholesale government activity the U.S. Constitution seeks to prevent. The emotion of the situation does not relieve legislators of the responsibility to scrutinize legislation for its weak points and defects. Families of crime victims are not experts on crime or law. When they propose flawed remedies, legislators have an obligation to ignore the emotional context and summon the will to tell family members they are wrong.

In addition, what possible purpose is served in this time of recession and budget shortfalls by conducting expensive and unnecessary operations in government?

The Legislature can (1) create a bureaucratic mechanism to take DNA samples from all those convicted of violent felonies, or (2) create a bureaucratic mechanism to take DNA samples from all of those accused of violent felonies and then to destroy all those taken from people who are found not guilty. Which choice is more likely to be unnecessarily expensive?