The V.I. Department of Justice will be mandated to create a forensics lab it would like to have, but "without funding … may of necessity go unfilled," if legislation approved in committee Friday becomes law. The committee also sent out bills criminalizing bulletproof vests and regulating concealed firearms.
The lab measure, [Bill 31-0145] sponsored by Sens. Novelle Francis and Neville James, says the Justice Department "shall establish, staff and equip a forensic crime laboratory in the Virgin Islands," and that it must be certified by one of the major national certifying bodies.
Introducing the bill to the Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Committee, Francis, a former V.I. police commissioner and retired career V.I. police officer, spoke about the high cost and delays for law enforcement caused by the lack of a local lab.
"Currently evidence such as blood, DNA, saliva, alcohol (and others) are actually sent off-island. … This is not only time consuming but extremely costly," Francis said.
Not having a lab "has allowed criminals to remain on the streets," sometimes to go on to commit a homicide, he added.
Francis said there was federal funding for the lab and that the money saved by not having to send material off-island could fund it. Those monies would be freed up only after there is already a forensic lab up and running.
Police and Justice Department officials testified in support of having a forensics lab, but said it needed to be funded.
V.I. Police Department forensic detective Darius George testified about the ballistics, fingerprint and other technical forensic work done locally and how they send DNA and other materials off-island. George said they have equipment now, such as an automated fingerprint identification system that can check prints in real time, but it needs to be upgraded and funding is lacking.
"Funding is what we need to get our equipment upgraded," George said.
Acting Attorney General Claude Walker said the need for a lab "is urgent" and would help not just the USVI but enable it to "eventually provide services to other government agencies and hopefully other governments within the Caribbean."
But Walker said the Justice Department is "concerned that this bill contains no funding source and with the fiscal condition of the territory so precarious, this unfunded mandate may of necessity go unfilled."
Francis asked Police Commissioner Delroy Richards how much the government spends on outside forensic evidence analysis each year. Richards said he would need to check for a precise figure but said it was "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Sen. Jean Forde asked Justice officials to confirm if there was federal assistance available for a forensic lab.
"Yes there is but I won’t say it is substantial," Deputy Attorney General Renee Gumbs-Carty said. "We do have some assistance but it is not sufficient," she said.
Voting to send the bill out to the Rules and Judiciary Committee were Francis, Forde, Sens. Justin Harrigan, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Sammuel Sanes. Sens. Kenneth Gittens and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly were absent. There was no opposition.
The committee also sent on, without opposition, a bill establishing guidelines for concealed weapon permits, [Bill 31-0046] sponsored by Sanes. Currently the law only has a general permit, with no specific provisions to allow or regulate concealed weapons, Sanes said while introducing the bill. The measure would allow the police commissioner to decide whether or not to issue a concealed weapon permit if they are a business owner, carry cash for work, have been a violent crime victim or other factors warrant it.
Richards testified in support of the bill, but urged senators to amend it to restrict the number of employees in a business that could carry weapons. "Not every individual at a workplace needs to carry a weapon," he said, recalling one person who wanted licenses for six of his children, saying they carry money. "I disagree with that," he said.
Sanes said they would be drafting amendments to address some of those concerns when the bill is heard in the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
It also sent on a bill, [Bill 31-0159] sponsored by Harrigan, to make it a felony to wear body armor while committing a crime. It would add up to five years onto whatever sentence the person received, along with a mandatory $5,000 fine. Police and Justice Department officials strongly supported the bill, saying police needed an edge against heavily armed criminals.
Chief Public Defender Samuel Joseph said he was concerned about criminalizing simply having armor, which is defensive and not itself dangerous or criminal. He also said it concerned him that the bill did not specify only violent crimes, but applied to any crime, so that a person could face a felony and serious prison time for a minor crime, such as littering, for wearing defensive armor.
Senators amended the bill to specify it applied to only a violent crime and then voted without opposition to send it out to the Rules Committee.