In a sharply divided 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police can legally acquire a DNA swab from any person arrested for a serious crime, mirroring a practice that has already been adopted by 28 states and the federal government.
The ruling was issued in connection with the court case Maryland v. King. According to court records, Alonzo King was arrested in 2009 on charges of assault after he reportedly pointed a shotgun at some individuals. Because Maryland allows police to collect DNA evidence for anyone charged with a serious crime, authorities took a swab of Mr. King’s cheek. When the sample was ran through the cold case database, King was identified as a suspect in a 2003 rape case. He was later found guilty of the rape, but he challenged the legality of the DNA collection.
The decision may be felt across Minnesota because the state has previously ruled such collections are unconstitutional. Authorities in Minnesota only collect DNA evidence when a person has been charged with a violent crime like rape or murder, and even then the order for collection needs to be approved by a judge.
Strong Opinions on Both Sides
Both sides strongly defended their position in their written opinion. Supporters of the measure said DNA collection would help solve cold cases and future crimes, while dissenters viewed the process as an infringement of personal rights.
“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,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the opinion for the five-justice majority. “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. 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.”
While the ruling may make it easier to identify suspected criminals, Justice Antonin Scalia said the decision opens a dangerous door.
“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 his dissent. “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.”
The biggest problem dissenters have with the ruling is the vagueness surrounding what is considered a “serious” crime. It’s very possible that state governments will interpret the ruling differently, which could eventually lead to DNA collection in petty crimes like shoplifting or disorderly conduct.
ACLU Chimes In
The American Civil Liberties Union weighed-in on the ruling, siding with Scalia and the dissenting opinion. Similar to our recent posts on the Missouri v. McNeely ruling, the issue at hand is the government’s power to commit searches and seizures on its citizens.
“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, legal director for the ACLU. “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.”
In a future post, our attorneys will break down the legal impacts of Monday’s ruling. If you have any questions about the ruling, please submit a question to our team.