CARSON CITY, Nev. — Nevada lawmakers took up a proposal Thursday that would require a DNA sample to be collected from anyone arrested for a felony — a bill inspired by the 2008 rape and murder of college student Brianna Denison.
Several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee called “Brianna’s Law” one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Nevada Legislature has considered in years. The hearing featured testimony from families of the victim and other high-profile crimes, including the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in Utah.
“I feel this legislation has more impact and potential to impact the lives of people in this state more than anything else I’ve done,” said Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.
Denison was spending the night with a friend in Reno, home from college during winter break, when she vanished from the couch she was sleeping on. Three weeks later, her body was found in a snowy field near a business park. She had been raped and murdered.
Ten months later, authorities arrested James Biela. DNA samples revealed he also raped two girls in the same area just months prior to attacking and killing Denison. Had the bill been in place, a felony arrest in 2002 for assault with a deadly weapon would have identified Biela after the first rape — and police could have found him before he found Denison.
“We knew we had a serial rapist. We knew we had a murderer. We knew what he looked like, what he drove, we knew what his DNA looked like, we just didn’t know who it belonged to,” Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Christopher Hicks told committee members.
SB243 requires a DNA sample be collected from anyone arrested for a felony. Unless a judge determines there is not probable cause for the arrest, the DNA profile would be compared to a national database to check for connections to crime scenes from unresolved cases. Under current law, DNA is only collected if someone is convicted of a felony.
Twenty-five states have enacted similar laws — including California, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — and six states are considering legislation this year. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the practice last month, and is expected to rule before the end of June. Nevada’s law would add a $2 administrative fee after any criminal goes to court to help offset some of the costs.
Opponents of the measure claim it violates the Fourth Amendment, which says citizens cannot be subjected to unreasonable searches, and that most people subjected to the practice will be innocent.
“We believe this goes against the fundamental American right of innocent until proven guilty,” said Vanessa Spinazola, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Jayann Sepich, whose daughter was raped and murdered in New Mexico in 2003, has spent many of the years since Katie Sepich’s death pushing for more extensive DNA collection around the country. In December, Congress passed the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act that authorized grants to states that implement arrestee DNA collection.
“While criminals can wear gloves to prevent leaving fingerprints at a crime scene, with today’s technology it is virtually impossible to not leave DNA,” Sepich said. Many witnesses and lawmakers called DNA the “fingerprint of the 21st century.”
“I hope you never have to hear from another mother like me — another mother with a hole in her life that could have been prevented by this law,” family member Lauren Denison read from a prepared statement by Brianna’s mother, Bridgette Zunino-Denison.
For the father of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl abducted from her home a decade ago, nothing should be kept off the table when attempting to prevent serious crimes.
“This is the right thing to do,” he said.