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Police can collect DNA from arrestees, court says

Published June 3, 2013 8:40 pm

Courts • Some justices liken it to fingerprinting; some see a search for evidence without reasonable suspicion.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • A sharply divided Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for police to take a DNA swab from anyone they arrest for a serious crime, endorsing a practice now followed by more than half the states as well as the federal government.

The justices differed strikingly on how big a step that was.

"Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court's five-justice majority. The ruling backed a Maryland law allowing DNA swabbing of people arrested for serious crimes.

But the four dissenting justices said the court was allowing a major change in police powers, with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia predicting the limitation to "serious" crimes would not last.

"Make no mistake about it: Because of today's decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason," Scalia said in a sharp dissent which he read aloud in the courtroom. "This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA when you fly on an airplane — surely the TSA must know the 'identity' of the flying public. For that matter, so would taking your children's DNA when they start public school."

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler agreed that there's nothing stopping his state from expanding DNA collection from those arrested for serious crimes to those arrested for lesser ones like shoplifting.

"I don't advocate expanding the crimes for which you take DNA, but the legal analysis would be the same," Gansler said. "The reason why Maryland chooses to only take DNA of violent criminals is that you're more likely to get a hit on a previous case. Shoplifters don't leave DNA behind, rapists do, and so you're much more likely to get the hit in a rape case."

Twenty-eight states and the federal government now take DNA swabs after arrests. But a Maryland court said it was illegal for that state to take Alonzo King's DNA without approval from a judge, ruling that King had "a sufficiently weighty and reasonable expectation of privacy against warrantless, suspicionless searches" under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

The high court's decision reverses that ruling and reinstates King's rape conviction, which came after police took his DNA during an unrelated arrest.

Kennedy, who is often considered the court's swing vote, wrote the decision along with conservative-leaning Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. They were joined by liberal-leaning Justice Stephen Breyer, while the dissenters were the conservative-leaning Scalia and liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Kennedy called collecting DNA useful for police in identifying individuals.

"The use of DNA for identification is no different than matching an arrestee's face to a wanted poster of a previously unidentified suspect, or matching tattoos to known gang symbols to reveal a criminal affiliation, or matching the arrestee's fingerprints to those recovered from a crime scene," Kennedy said. "DNA is another metric of identification used to connect the arrestee with his or her public persona, as reflected in records of his or her actions that are available to police."

But the American Civil Liberties Union said the court's ruling created "a gaping new exception to the Fourth Amendment."

"The Fourth Amendment has long been understood to mean that the police cannot search for evidence of a crime — and all nine justices agreed that DNA testing is a search — without individualized suspicion," said Steven R. Shapiro, the group's legal director. "Today's decision eliminates that crucial safeguard. At the same time, it's important to recognize that other state laws on DNA testing are even broader than Maryland's and may present issues that were not resolved by today's ruling."

Maryland's DNA collection law only allows police to take DNA from those arrested for serious offenses such as murder, rape, assault, burglary and other crimes of violence. In his ruling, Kennedy did not say whether the court's decision was limited to those crimes, but he did note that other states' DNA collection laws differ from Maryland's.

Scalia saw that as a crucial flaw. "If you believe that a DNA search will identify someone arrested for bank robbery, you must believe that it will identify someone arrested for running a red light," he said.

Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, cheered the decision and called DNA collection "a detective's most valuable tool in solving rape cases."

"We're very pleased that the court recognized the importance of DNA and decided that, like fingerprints, it can be collected from arrestees without violating any privacy rights," he said. "Out of every 100 rapes in this country, only three rapists will spend a day behind bars. To make matters worse, rapists tend to be serial criminals, so every one left on the streets is likely to commit still more attacks. DNA is a tool we could not afford to lose."

Getting DNA swabs from criminals is common. All 50 states and the federal government take cheek swabs from convicted criminals to check against federal and state databanks, with the court's blessing. The fight at the Supreme Court was over whether that DNA collection could come before conviction and without a judge issuing a warrant.

According to court documents, the FBI's Combined DNA Index System or CODIS — a coordinated system of federal, state and local databases of DNA profiles — already contains more than 10 million criminal profiles and 1.1 million profiles of those arrested. According to the FBI, the DNA samples from people whose charges have been dismissed, who have been acquitted or against whom no charges have been brought are to be expunged from the federal system. But states and other municipalities that collect DNA make their own rules about what happens to their collections.

In the case before the court, a 53-year-old woman was raped and robbed but no one was arrested. Almost six years later, Alonzo King was arrested and charged with felony second-degree assault in a separate case. Relying on the Maryland law that allows warrantless DNA tests following some felony arrests, police took a cheek swab of King's DNA, which matched a sample from the 2003 Salisbury rape. King was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison.

King eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor assault from his arrest, a crime for which Maryland cannot take warrantless DNA samples. The state court said King's rights therefore had been violated when the state took his DNA based on that arrest alone.

Maryland stopped collecting DNA after that decision, but Roberts allowed police to keep collecting DNA samples pending the high court's review.