HELENA — Attorney General Tim Fox and others backed a bill Monday to close a loophole preventing law enforcement officials from obtaining DNA samples from sexual and violent offenders who move here from out of state.
No one testified against Senate Bill 213, by Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Larsen introduced the bill at the request of Fox, a Republican.
It would change state law to require sexual and violent offenders to provide a DNA sample when they move to Montana from other states and register with law enforcement officials here.
“Montana is one of the few states with this loophole,” Larsen said. The others are Colorado, Idaho and Wisconsin.
Fox asked the senators to join him “in an effort to make our neighborhoods more safe for Montana families, especially children.”
As he campaigned for office last year, Fox said, “there was one consistent message I heard from voters — please do more to protect our kids and our most vulnerable citizens.”
He added, “The gap in the law means that some unsolved cases may remain unsolved.”
Fox cited this example of how Wyoming brought charges against a criminal though its law:
In 1990, a woman was sleeping with her young child in bed at home. A man raped and assaulted her at knifepoint. A DNA profile of the perpetrator was developed using the biological evidence from the crime. The perpetrator had been imprisoned in another state for an offense that did not at the time require a DNA sample to be submitted for the database.
After he was released from prison, the man moved back to Wyoming and was required to submit a DNA sample when he registered as a sexual offender. When his profile was entered into the state’s DNA database, law enforcement officials were able to confirm the link between the rape and him, solving the crime and possibly preventing other crimes.
Mark Murphy, representing the Montana County Attorneys Association, Montana Association of Chiefs of Police and the Montana Police Protection Association, supported the bill.
“The technology has advanced so much in the last 20 years, it’s hard to imagine,” Murphy said, adding: “This is going to increase the set of data in our database.”
Also supporting the bill were Megan Ashton, manager of the DNA database at the state Crime Lab in Missoula, who explained how the database worked, and Jim Smith, representing the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, asked Ashton whether the Crime Lab would have the room to store the additional DNA samples if the bill passes.
She said the lab previously used cotton swabs to collect DNA from people’s mouths and stored the swabs in a freezer. The Crime Lab has since moved to a new system and stores DNA evidence on cards at room temperatures.
Ashton estimated the lab would receive 2,000 new DNA samples the first year if the law passes, and 400 annually in later years.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, asked Mark Murphy if keeping this kind of enhanced database wouldn’t also help criminal defendants at times.
“That’s correct,” Mark Murphy said. “Science doesn’t presume a result….It can work in both directions. It can exonerate.”
That occurs a few times, Mark Murphy said, but not often.
The committee didn’t vote on the bill immediately.