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Nebraska advances DNA testing bill for violent crime cases

The Nebraska State Capitol Building.
The Nebraska State Capitol Building.(Ryan Swanigan (KOLN))
Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 3:44 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers gave initial approval Friday to a bill that would allow police to collect DNA samples from people who are charged with but not yet convicted of violent crimes, despite objections that it would infringe on civil liberties.

Supporters likened the measure to police fingerprinting someone who was just arrested and said it could help solve cold cases.

But opponents railed against the proposal as a potential violation of constitutional search and seizure protections, although the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld similar laws. Lawmakers advanced the bill, 30-11, through the first of three mandatory votes after overcoming a legislative filibuster to try to block it.

“We will make Nebraska a safer place with this bill,” said the sponsor, Sen. Robert Hilkemann, of Omaha.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, of Omaha, said collecting a DNA swab isn’t much different than getting fingerprints from a suspect who was just arrested. Lathrop, an attorney and chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said the bill is about “catching the bad guys” who are charged murder, kidnapping, assault, arson, sexual assault, robbery or burglary.

“This is getting a little astray when we say we’re trampling people’s rights,” he said.

The bill would also require the removal of DNA evidence from the database if criminal charges are dismissed.

But Sen. Justin Wayne, of Omaha, said the measure was akin to letting the police search a private home or computer or even drawing a person’s blood without getting a search warrant, as is currently required. Supporters added a provision that would only allow testing of DNA after a judge has found probable cause, but Wayne and others said that’s not enough.

“That is a very, very scary, slippery slope that we are walking down,” he said.

Nebraska already requires people to submit to a DNA swab after they’ve been convicted of a felony. The sample is submitted to a national database, which can then be used to link the felon to other crimes.

Other senators questioned whether the DNA testing requirement would add to the state’s existing backlog of sexual assault kits which have yet to be tested. Sen. John Cavanaugh, who has worked as a public defender in Omaha, said the measure could add to the backlog, depending on which samples authorities seek to test first.

“We’re overtaxing a system that’s already overtaxed,” he said.

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