DNA Evidence Collection Goes to Supreme Court

Supreme Court building in Washington DC

The US Supreme Court this month announced that it will decide whether it is legally permissible for police to take DNA samples from suspects arrested for violent crimes. The case is an appeal of the Maryland Court of Appeals’ decision in King v. Maryland, which invalidated the state’s DNA collection law. If upheld, the decision would overturn similar laws in 25 states.

“DNA is a crucial tool in rape investigations, many of which will be derailed unless the Supreme Court overturns the Maryland decision,” said Scott Berkowitz, RAINN’s president. “Public safety is really at risk here. This is the most important rape case that has come before the Supreme Court in many years.”

In the Maryland case, DNA collected following a 2009 arrest of Alonzo King matched DNA from the crime scene of an unsolved 2003 rape. The DNA match led to King’s conviction for the 2003 home-invasion rape, and a sentence of life in prison without parole.  King challenged the conviction on Fourth Amendment grounds, claiming that the cheek swab to collect his DNA violated his expectation of privacy and constituted an illegal search.

The Maryland court ruled in favor of King’s challenge, in what a Washington Post editorial termed “a bizarre decision, to say the least.”

In July, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a stay in the case, finding that Maryland’s ability to protect public safety would suffer “irreparable harm” if the state was stopped from collecting DNA samples from arrestees.  The stay allows the state to continue collecting DNA while the Supreme Court decides the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for early next year.

The Post editorial noted that, “In many jurisdictions, and with explicit Supreme Court sanction, suspects are frisked, handcuffed and even strip-searched upon arrest. They are routinely fingerprinted, and in jail they can be observed, by uniformed officers or by other inmates, sleeping, eating or on the toilet. But according to the Maryland court, a five-second cheek swab constitutes an unreasonable search and an unwarranted intrusion into a suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy. That seems a stretch, to say the least.”

Despite claims by opponents of the DNA laws, the manner in which DNA is tested for criminal justice purposes does not contain data about the health of the suspect or other intimate details of their genetic profile.  DNA collection laws also generally contain strict privacy provisions, which make it a crime to use the DNA for any purpose other than to identify a suspect in a criminal investigation.

“DNA is the 21st century version of a fingerprint — a more accurate way to identify arrestees and convicted criminals. That’s why 25 states and Congress have already passed laws allowing collection from felony arrestees,” said Berkowitz. “These laws have taken countless rapists off the streets, exonerated innocent suspects, and prevented future crimes by locking up serial criminals.”

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