A divided Supreme Court issued an important opinion today, Maryland v. King, saying that police are allowed to routinely take DNA from those suspects they arrest without first securing a warrant. The important criminal law decision equated a DNA cheek swab with the commonly accepted practice of fingerprinting.
The case involved a woman who was raped and robbed but police never were able to identify a suspect. Years later, Alonzo King was arrested and charged with second-degree assault. Police took advantage of the Maryland law which allowed warrantless DNA tests following some arrests, and took a swab of King’s cheek. After putting the DNA into a database, the police got a hit for the earlier rape and King was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Justice Kennedy, who wrote for the five-justice majority, said that taking a DNA swab is like fingerprinting and photographing which is already part of a legitimate police booking procedure and is acceptable under the Fourth Amendment.
The case was seen as important not only because of the increasing importance of DNA evidence, but also because of how prevalent the practice already is among the states. As of today, at least 28 states and the federal case engage in warrantless DNA collection. A Maryland court that heard the case said the practice was illegal and said that the state first needed approval from a judge before taking a suspect’s DNA. The Maryland court said that a reasonable expectation of privacy prevented such warrantless searches.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the Maryland court and reinstated King’s rape conviction. Kennedy wrote that in the way it was used in this case, DNA for the purpose of identification is no different than matching someone’s face to a wanted poster or matching tattoos to known gang symbols. According to the justice, the procedure of taking a swab from a cheek is not substantially different than taking a fingerprint from a suspect and matching it to those recovered from a crime scene.
The dissent was harshly critical and led by outspoken Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia warned the public that because of today’s decision anyone’s DNA could be taken and entered into a national database if they are ever arrested for any reason. Scalia’s trouble with the case was not about the taking of the DNA itself, which is seen as a common step in many criminal investigations. Instead, the issue is one of timing. Taking the DNA before a conviction and without judicial approval is what Scalia had a problem with given that suspects are forced to divulge incredibly valuable and personal information to law enforcement without any judicial oversight.
Read the full opinion here.
Read: “Supreme Court Upholds Warrantless Collection Of DNA,” by Mark Memmott, published at NPR.org.
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