By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A bill that would require certain individuals to submit to a DNA analysis upon arrest has once again been introduced in the West Virginia Senate.
Senate Bill (SB) 53, introduced on the first day of the legislative session, was discussed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during their Thursday meeting. This committee substitute bill is nearly identical to SB 422, which stalled in committee during last year’s regular session.
This week, after much discussion, the committee decided to table the bill for further review.
The bill states that any person over age 18 who has been arrested on the felony charge of violence against a person, burglary or an offense against a minor will be required to submit to a DNA analysis and to have their DNA records entered into a centralized database.
Additionally, all those who have been convicted of a felony on or after March 9, 1995, must also submit to DNA analysis, counsel explained.
At this time, state code currently allows DNA analysis of those who have been convicted of sexual offenses and a limited number of felony offenses, counsel noted.
In the event a person is not convicted of the crime for which they are arrested, SB 53 sets forth rules for which they may apply for expungement of those DNA records from the state’s database.
Melissa Runyan, West Virginia State Police forensic lab database supervisor and state CODIS (the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System) administrator, then provided testimony before committee members.
She stated that, currently, when a person is convicted of a qualifying offense, they must provide a DNA sample, a fingerprint and other identifying information to the state police lab. The DNA sample is given a unique number and entered into a localized system.
“It is tested through our testing process,” Runyan said. “Right now we are currently testing samples with a less than 30 day turnaround time.”
Once reviewed, the sample is submitted to the state’s DNA database and then to the national DNA database.
“We also search the database when those samples are put in to determine if those samples match to any forensic case samples,” Runyan noted.
In response to questioning from Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, lead sponsor of SB 53, Runyan clarified that in addition to catching those who have committed a crime, DNA analysis has been able to exonerate those who have been falsely convicted of a crime.
Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, then proposed an amendment to the bill making it clear that anyone who does not receive a “true bill” grand jury indictment be allowed to have their DNA expunged.
The amendment was adopted by majority vote.
Senator Laura Chapman, R-Ohio, then questioned the constitutionality of the bill.
“I have no problem with the collection of DNA,” Senator Chapman stated. “I have a problem with the placement in the database, because it’s my understanding from the testimony that it’s searched and continually searched, which, I think, constitutes a search under the Constitution.”
Counsel responded that most states have similar bills and they have been deemed constitutional; however, the committee decided to table the bill for further review.
In other committee business, SB 74, regarding education, was discussed.
According to counsel, a similar bill passed the Senate during the 2022 regular legislative session, but it did not clear the House.
This bill states that county boards of education, superintendents, employees, and members of the West Virginia Public Employees’ Grievance Board must give “substantial deference ” to the state superintendent’s interpretation in matters of school law and rules of the state board.
If a state or federal court has already rendered their interpretation of school law or state board rules, then the state superintendent must defer to that ruling, according to the bill.
“This law, and the purpose of it, is just to essentially make certain that there is one interpretation that, kind of, has priority, because we do have 55 county school boards,” Sen. Rucker noted. “We do have many administrators and principals –many different folks–and we don’t want 55 ways of interpreting something . . . we want to have uniformity.”
Counsel replied, “The simplest way to say it, is that this bill reminds the county boards of education and the county superintendents and the county grievance board that they cannot ignore the state superintendent.”
Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, then asked West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee to speak to the bill.
Lee stated he was in opposition to the bill because it takes away local control, especially when it comes to locality pay and the employee grievance process.
Sen. Caputo also rose in opposition to the bill.
Following discussion, a majority of committee members voted to move the bill to the full Senate with the recommendation that it do pass.
Lastly, the committee passed the committee substitute of Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would “exempt veterans who are awarded 90% service-connected disability from paying all or part of the ad valorem real property taxes” on their residence, counsel explained. If passed, the resolution would be placed on the 2024 ballot as a constitutional amendment.
Similar resolutions have been introduced, but not passed, in both 2021 and 2022.
After the committee’s passage, this resolution is now on its way to the Senate Finance Committee.