Monday, May 14, 2012

A swab in the cheek while the State Police cracks

Today the Pennsylvania Senate Law and Justice Committee and the House Judiciary Committee held a joint hearing in Gap, Lancaster County, on the plans by the Pennsylvania State Police to close its barracks in Ephrata and to downgrade the status of Troop J, the local PSP headquarters, to a substation. The latter move would lead to numerous services of the state police moving elsewhere.

PSP Commissioner Frank Noonan testified and was followed by several local leaders. Noonan said that the state police is currently 435 troopers short of its full complement, statewide, and expects to be at 500 short by the time the next class of cadets graduates from the academy. The locals, including the chairman of the county commissioners, the district attorney, and the chief of police in the city of Lancaster, protested PSP's planned closure.

Could PSP use $13 million? That's Noonan's estimated cost of Senate Bill 775, a bill to collect DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime but who have been arrested for a felony or one of several designated misdemeanors. We oppose this bill because taking a DNA sample from someone is a search, and in order to conduct this search, the government needs a finding of probable cause that it will produce evidence of a crime. The high state court in Maryland recently came to the same conclusion. DNA collection from people who have not been convicted of a crime turns innocent-until-proven-guilty on its head.

The pricetag isn't the only significant practical problem with this bill. PSP's DNA caseload will increase from 23,000 samples per year to 121,000 samples per year, according to an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in February. Under current law, in which DNA is taken from those convicted of a felony or one of the designated misdemeanors, it takes eight months to analyze a DNA sample. The wheels of justice could come to a grinding halt if SB 775 becomes law.

Incredibly, in this environment, the House Judiciary Committee is rumored to be taking up SB 775 before the end of June. While local leaders gnash their teeth over the closure of a nearby state police barracks and while PSP leaders decry their shortage of troopers, the legislature may take up this bill to place a new and expensive burden on the state police.

How many troopers could the state hire with $13 million?

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