RESPONDING to Canadians' growing concerns about crime, Canada's House of Commons resoundingly passed legislation making genetic DNA testing mandatory for suspects in violent crime cases.
Leaders of Canada's five political parties agreed Thursday to set aside both debate and committee review, rushing the bill through with unanimous consent prior to a summer legislative recess. Another bill to create a national database of DNA samples from convicted felons will be taken up this fall.
Driving the fast action on the legislation was the plight of one family. Police say they have DNA evidence that would convict a suspect in the rape-murder of a 15-year-old in her Montreal home last year. But under current law that evidence might be thrown out.
The swift move ratchets Canada into closer sync with the US, where courts have long upheld the right of police to require that suspects provide them with fluid, hair, or other genetic samples.
Genetic testing is increasingly seen as a scientific method that can, almost by itself, establish guilt or innocence. Its use is growing rapidly in criminal courts in the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.
The testing uses a "fingerprint" of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), within which lies the unique genetic makeup of a person, present in semen, blood, or other materials, to determine whether it matches such evidence found at the scene of a crime.
Canadian officials said the new law would still provide a high degree of civil rights protection for defendants, while some critics weren't as sure. "Procedures for obtaining DNA samples will be governed by principles of respect for human dignity and privacy," said Justice Minister Alan Rock, who sponsored the legislation. "While the government recognizes the importance of DNA typing as an investigative tool ... privacy concerns dictate that adequate safeguards must be in place."
Civil libertarians offered only mild protests. Opinion polls show almost nine out of 10 Canadians support mandatory genetic testing. A few defense lawyers, however, pointed up gaps in the law, and said they didn't like the bill being rushed through without more careful scrutiny.
"What we've all learned from the O.J. Simpson case is that the method for collecting DNA samples and testing them is crucial," says Steven Skurka, a Toronto defense lawyer. "Nothing in this bill deals with laboratory-testing procedures."
But DNA is a two-edged sword, and could lead to the release of innocents who have been wrongly convicted. DNA tests, for example, led to the exoneration in February of Guy Paul Morin, a Canadian convicted of murder.
Under Canada's new law:
*Police would have to prove to a judge they had reason to believe that a specific suspect committed murder, arson, sexual assault, manslaughter, or another serious crime, before being able to take a DNA sample, even by "reasonable force."
*Such evidence can only be used in a specific case for a specific offense - and to use the same evidence for another crime investigation would itself be a criminal offense.
*DNA samples would be destroyed if analysis showed the suspect was not involved, if charges were dropped, or if a suspect was acquitted.
Legislation to create a registry or database of DNA samples from convicted felons is expected to be introduced by Minister Rock in a few months.
Already 27 US states have laws providing for construction of a genetic database of convicted violent offenders. Under the guidance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, research is under way to create a national DNA database in the US, experts say.
Some contend, however, that DNA databases face quality-control problems and the possibility of "statistical skewing" should give pause to legislators in both the US and Canada.