CEDAR RAPIDS | Police and civil libertarians are at odds over a new Iowa rule that lets law enforcement officials collect DNA samples from people who commit aggravated misdemeanors. It takes effect July 1.
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek calls it a “valuable and important tool” that will help close important cases.
Iowa, like several states, collects DNA from felons. In 2013, the Iowa Legislature voted to expand that to adults convicted of most aggravated misdemeanors. The effective date was delayed until this year to allow law enforcement agencies to prepare for implementation.
Pulkrabek has no qualms about sampling and no doubts about its benefits.
“When you look at the universe of people who are charged with criminal offenses, if you just look at just the universe of felons, it’s a small universe,” Pulkrabek said. “When you expand it by aggravated misdemeanors, if grows substantially.
The other benefit, according to Linn County Sheriff’s Office Col. John Stuekle, is that he’s seen many cases of felons getting re-arrested on misdemeanor charges.
“They may be done dealing with the Department of Corrections, so they were slipping through the cracks and their DNA may not be caught and put into the database,” he said.
In many states, felonies are crimes in which the penalty may involve a year of more of incarceration, said Paul Stageberg, who before Friday was administrator of the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. In Iowa, an aggravated misdemeanor can result in a prison sentence of up to two years.
“So our aggravated misdemeanors, for the most part, would most likely be felonies in most states,” he said.
But they aren’t felonies, said Rita Bettis of the American Civil Liberties Union-Iowa, who calls DNA sampling of misdemeanants an “unjustified overstep” because many of them are low-level criminals whose crimes have no “rational relationship” to DNA.
“DNA contains our most intimate, private information,” she said. “I think Iowans understand that government should not be able to access and store forever that information without good reason.”
In the case of people who commit aggravated misdemeanors, there is no good reason, Bettis said.
In the case of many felonies – violent crimes, sexual assaults, for example, Bettis said, the case can be made there is a connection or relationship between the crime and the criminal’s DNA.
“Now we’re jumping into areas where there may not be a rational relationship between, say, possession of marijuana” or other non-violent crimes, Bettis said. “For non-violent, non-sexual crime, there is not a good enough reason.”
When Iowans think about people they know who have been convicted of possession of marijuana or “other low-level crime,” or a traffic offense such as OWI, third offense, “they can see a distinction,” Bettis said.
Pulkrabek, who doesn’t make that distinction, bases his support for DNA sampling, in part, on an Iowa City case he called “a textbook case why DNA collection is good.”
In that case, Micah Matthews was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for felony assault of an Iowa City woman after DNA collected from him upon his conviction for another felony matched DNA collected from the earlier assault.
Pulkrabek called that the “poster child” for DNA sampling even though it did not involve DNA from a misdemeanant.
“Poster child” case or not, Stageberg warned against expecting large numbers of cases to be solved as misdemeanants are added to the database.
His comments about DNA sampling are filled with caution. Evidence from other states “suggests” cold cases “might” be solved, for example.
“It’s my nature as a researcher” to be cautious,” Stageberg said. “I don’t want to overstep the data.”
Sgt. Scott Bright of the Iowa Department of Public Safety agreed that “you might solve some, but you’re not going to solve all of them.”
“It’s another tool that gives us an opportunity to solve crimes that have been unsolved for years,” Bright said.
Having a tool doesn’t mean it will get used, Stageberg said.
“First of all, you have to have the resources to look at cold cases,” Stageberg said. “We know the justice system is strapped for resources like everybody else.”
The Legislature appropriated $327,000 a year for two years and an additional two positions in the Department of Public safety to implement the expanded DNA sampling.
Whether that’s enough to follow through remains to be seen, but Bright said Public Safety is “going to use the resources we have” and work with other law enforcement agencies to follow up on hits.
So far, Public Safety reports 85,744 samples from Iowa convicted offenders have been entered into CODIS – the Combined DNA Index System -- and another 4,835 Iowa forensic samples have been entered. A “forensic sample” is defined as a biological sample originating from and/or associated with a crime scene and whose source is attributable to a supposed perpetrator. These are not reference samples from known individuals, such as victims, suspects or offenders.
There have been 434 national hits and 1,167 state hits, according to Paul Bush, DNA criminalist supervisor for the Division of Criminal Investigation. A “hit” is defined as a confirmed match that aids an investigation, but does not necessarily result in conviction.
“It’s not ‘CSI,’” Stuekle said, referring to the popular television shows. “Not every blood drop makes a match, but five years down the road there could be a match.”
And if Iowans want to avoid being part of that database, Stuekle has simple advice: “Don’t get arrested.”
“It’s not like the state is going out and grabbing you off the street without cause,” he said.