Lawmaker wants anyone arrested on a felony charge to submit DNA

State Rep. Rob Teilhet (D-Smyrna), a candidate for state attorney general, said Monday that the change would prevent repeat criminal offenses and could save lives. It would also bring Georgia in line with 21 other states that have passed similar legislation.

“Right now we’re arming our police officers with bows and arrows,” Teilhet said. “This bill is about making sure that the right people are locked up and preventing them from hurting someone else.”

Currently, Georgia only collects DNA samples from people convicted of certain felonies. Teilhet’s proposal would vastly expand the state DNA database, a move that worries civil libertarians. About 164,000 people were arrested in Georgia in 2008 in crimes that would be covered by Teilhet’s bill, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Mike and Joan Berry of Lawrenceville have thrown their support behind the proposed legislation. Their daughter, Johnia, was stabbed to death in 2004 by a man who broke into her apartment while she was attending the University of Tennessee.

The couple fought to change the law in Tennessee, and in 2007 that state’s Legislature passed a law -- the Johnia Berry Act 2007 -- that required anyone charged in a violent felony to submit a DNA sample. A few months later, a DNA match led to an arrest in Johnia’s death. The couple has established a Web site, www.johniaberry.org, to push for expanded DNA testing.

“I would never want a parent to get a phone call at 5 a.m. like I did telling them to come to the hospital,” Mike Berry said Monday.

But Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, opposes Teilhet's proposal, describing it as "going after flies with a sledgehammer."

“It’s irresponsible to mandate our already strapped law enforcement personnel to procure, test and store the DNA of every person that comes through their doors,” she said.

Tontochi said her organization would like to work with Teilhet on the legislation to iron out its concerns.

Sandra Michaels, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Teilhet’s proposal is “overly broad.”

“There are so many felonies on the books that the collection of DNA on all of them is not really productive,” she said. “It’s basically setting a wide net to catch a minnow.”

It is estimated Teilhet’s proposal could cost the state $10 million in initial equipment costs and about $7 million a year in ongoing costs for technicians, instrument maintenance and supplies for DNA analysis.

Teilhet touted DNA as the best single tool law enforcement has to keep repeat offenders off the streets. An expanded DNA database, he said, would not only help lock up the guilty, it would also help free those wrongly convicted.

The Democratic lawmaker said he has bipartisan support for his proposal. But political opponent Ken Hodges, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, questioned Teilhet's political timing.

Hodges spokesman Jonathan Williams accused Teilhet of voting last year against one version of the state budget that included money for expanded DNA testing.

"Ken’s a prosecutor, and he’s long supported strong DNA databases,” Williams said.

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