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November 28, 2007
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Colo. police required to preserve biological evidence

Panel finishes weighing new evidence rules 
 
By Miles Moffeit
The Denver Post 
 
DENVER, Colo. — Colorado police agencies and laboratories would be required to preserve DNA evidence collected in the most severe felony crimes if lawmakers take a cue from a gubernatorial task force.

But law enforcement officials would not face criminal sanctions if they improperly dispose of materials.

The recommendations, hashed out Tuesday, mark the first formal agreement among 23 members of Bill Ritter's DNA working group and would rewrite the current statute containing no obligation to save biological evidence.

"We all agree there needs to be a duty to preserve," said panel chairman Jeffrey Bayless, a retired Denver judge, bringing nods from around the table.

The task force members, including four lawmakers, are close to wrapping up several weeks of debates and research into other DNA-preservation laws across the country. Only one meeting, set for next Monday, remains before they send their proposal for a new law to the governor.

In the latest session, they narrowed their scope by suggesting that evidence be held long-term - the length of a prisoner's sentence - only in the top two felony categories, covering murder, rape and kidnapping cases.

In lesser felony cases where plea agreements are the norm, a judge would determine whether the evidence is kept for three years. Such exemptions could help prevent evidence rooms from being swamped by burdensome stockpiles, a concern repeatedly voiced by police officials.

But questions still loom about what types of "bulk" evidence with potential forensic value should be kept on evidence-room shelves, in addition to who should store it. For example, should a police department keep an entire blood-soaked bed or just extracted samples?

Most members felt that a new preservation law should steer police agencies to "best practices" for making such detailed decisions. Adams County District Attorney Don Quick recommended that the state chapter of the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training assume the role of creating standards.

The panel also agreed that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and other accredited laboratories that perform DNA analysis for police agencies should be required to retain the samples they examine, shifting that burden from local departments.

Currently, the bureau returns analyzed samples to departments after two years. But in some cases, the DNA has ended up in a lunchroom refrigerator, according to recent research by the task force.

Although task force members chose not to recommend criminal sanctions where evidence is maliciously or negligently discarded, they will propose that a new preservation law clarify that a judge has discretion to impose penalties or remedies, such as calling for a new trial.
    
Copyright 2007 The Denver Post
All Rights Reserved

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