Vermont Supreme Court overturns state law on DNA collection


The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday overturned a state law allowing DNA samples to be taken from suspects accused of a felony.

In a 3-2 decision, the court ruled that taking routine DNA samples before suspects are convicted violates Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution, which protects individual privacy. DNA samples can continue to be taken from convicted felons and can be taken from specific pretrial suspects if prosecutors show probable cause.

The decision upheld a series of lower court rulings that determined that taking DNA samples from everyone accused of a felony was unconstitutional. The appeal to the state Supreme Court was brought by Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio on behalf of several plaintiffs.

The Vermont Legislature has expanded law enforcement's authority to collect DNA evidence two times since the law took effect in 1998.

Following the rape and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in 2008 by her uncle, Michael Jacques, the Legislature modified the law to allow collection of DNA from anyone arraigned for a felony, a misdemeanor count of domestic violence or a misdemeanor sex offense requiring sex offender registration.

Valerio said he told lawmakers at the time that the law was over-reaching and would not stand up in court. Valerio said the state could still collect DNA samples in specific cases by obtaining a warrant.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell called the decision "disappointing." The narrow vote could lead him to ask for a re-argument of the case, he said.

Valerio said the number of pretrial samples taken from unconvicted suspects is probably fewer than 100 since the law was passed.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who helped guide Vermont's law through the Legislature said he, too, was disappointed by the high court's ruling and indicated that he might address it again next session.


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