Attorney General Roy Cooper says collecting DNA from suspects when they are arrested for felonies would save lives and prevent sexual assaults from ever happening.
"It's something we must do to protect the public," Cooper told a House committee Tuesday morning.
The committee is considering a bill that would require law enforcement officers to take DNA from cheek swabs from people arrested for violent crimes as well as felonies and some misdemeanors. Identifying markers from the DNA would be added to a database and kept unless and until the suspect is acquitted or cleared of the charge.
Currently, DNA is collected from anyone convicted of a felony offense or certain assault-related crimes. Appeals courts have upheld similar laws in other states.
Opponents say collecting DNA at arrest amounts to an unconstitutional search of someone who is presumed innocent.
Cooper cited the case of Robert Pratt, who was accused of kidnapping and trying to rape a Cary real estate agent in 1998. After that arrest, authorities were able to connect him to a 1995 case in which three hikers, two men and one woman, were held at gunpoint in Duke Forest. The woman was raped. Cooper said that Pratt had been arrested in 1997 for assault. Had his DNA been taken then, authorities could have connected him to the Duke Forest case sooner, and the 1998 kidnapping might never have occurred.
"DNA collection on arrest will save lives," said state Rep. Wil Neumann, a Gaston County Republican and one of the bill's primary sponsors.
Neumann said DNA is the fingerprint of the 21st century. He noted that the bill has broad support from law enforcement authorities and groups.
It has strong opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's really an end-run around constitutional protections," said Sarah Preston, a lobbyist for the ACLU of North Carolina.
People who are charged with a crime are presumed innocent and taking a biological sample without a warrant is an illegal search, she said.
DNA includes much more information about a person than identity. All manner of family information, predispositions, disease vulnerability and other characteristics are in contained in a sample, Preston said. And while authorities say that they only plan to use basic identifying information, there's no guarantee that government won't decide later to use more of the information it has been collecting, she said.
The bill is scheduled for another committee hearing later this week.
UPDATE: Post now includes attribution on criticisms of the proposal.