Governor’s DNA testing bill could hit roadblock in Legislature – Tennessee Lookout

Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to expand DNA testing to every felony charge in the state is likely to run into opposition when the Legislature convenes for a special session next week.

Key lawmakers are holding out support for the bill, and it’s expected to face difficulty in the Senate because of privacy and constitutional concerns. The state’s DNA testing program isn’t very effective, either.

Lee made the measure part of his official call for the special session in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville that claimed the lives of six people, including three 9-year-olds.

Under current law, DNA tests are required for people charged with violent and sexual crimes, but the governor’s bill would widen that net, taking in even those arrested on felony theft charges and white-collar crimes.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth opted to sponsor the measure for the Lee administration but declined to comment on the bill Wednesday.

A measure to expand DNA testing to every felony charge — including white collar crimes — is getting little support from Tennessee lawmakers, some of whom point out the current DNA testing system is beset by backlogs.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson is still reviewing the governor’s legislation and talking to colleagues before agreeing to sponsor “any administration bills in the special session,” according to Senate Republican Caucus spokesperson Molly Gormley.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond to questions Wednesday about the governor’s reason for seeking the legislation.

The measure could face a tough road just getting out of the Senate’s committee system.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is declining to lend his backing yet, even though he generally favors the use of DNA testing.

“Time and time again, DNA has proved essential in identifying serious criminals likely to reoffend. While I support the concept of the bill, it is important to have guardrails in place to ensure the data is properly managed and privacy is protected. I intend to talk to my fellow members and give the legislation a thorough review before offering my full support,” McNally said in a Wednesday statement.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, contends DNA testing has nothing to do with the Covenant School shooting or student safety. He’s concerned most of the bills taken up during the special session will fall short of attacking the problem.

“To the extent requiring DNA samples is a good idea, the Legislature had that idea for violent crimes 15 years ago. But many local law enforcement agencies haven’t been collecting those samples. It’s not clear to me how adding non-violent felonies and increasing the administrative burden is going to help,” Yarbro said.

The Legislature broadened DNA testing in 2007 when it passed the Johnia Berry Act —  named for a UT-Knoxville grad student who was murdered — adding swabbing requirements for those charged with violent and sexual crimes to felony convictions. 

But that effort isn’t working well, and the Legislature had to increase funding this year for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation when it found out hundreds of rape kits weren’t being processed. 

‘A massive breakdown in the system’: Tennessee has failed to collect DNA from 76,000 violent offenders

In addition, the Tennessee Lookout reported in 2021 that more than 76,000 DNA samples from convicted felons were missing from a state database dating to 1998. Memphis accounted for about a third of all those profiles missing since 1998.

Likewise, between 2016 and 2019, a total of 30,316 DNA samples should have been collected in Tennessee, yet 8,112 of those were missing, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

A TBI spokesperson said two years ago the state hadn’t even started to calculate the number of DNA samples missing from those arrested.

The biggest problem is that law enforcement agencies fail to collect, process and keep track of the tests. Most of the responsibility falls on county jails and sheriffs, but the Tennessee Lookout report shows not all law enforcement agencies operate on the same guidelines.

Some said they collect DNA swabs when a fingerprint machine tells them they need to do it for a certain charge. Others said it’s mandated at booking.

The Williamson County sheriff, however, said DNA collection is up to local police unless a deputy makes an arrest and then is required to collect a DNA swab at the jail.

A Shelby County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson was unfamiliar with the matter but said it wasn’t surprising that Memphis accounted for 30% of all missing DNA samples because of the city’s size.