Supreme Court Backs Maryland's DNA Law
WASHINGTON (CN) - A mandatory DNA test that tied a man to an unsolved rape case was not unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Maryland's DNA Collection Act authorizes state and local law enforcement to collect DNA samples from convicted felons as well as anyone arrested for a crime of violence, an attempted crime of violence, a burglary or an attempted burglary.
Alonzo King was subjected to a buccal swab in 2009 when he was arrested and charged with menacing people with a shotgun.
Police found that King's DNA matched a sample on file from a 2003 rape case that had gone cold.
King was tried and convicted for the rape, but the Maryland Court of Appeals set the conviction aside after determining that the cheek swab at King's assault booking in 2009 was an unreasonable search.
The case drew interest from several interest groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said that citizens have a privacy interest over their DNA.
Favoring the state Monday, a five-member majority of the Supreme Court concluded that Maryland's law serves a legitimate government interest.
"Courts have confirmed that the Fourth Amendment allows police to take certain routine 'administrative steps incident to arrest - i.e., ... book[ing], photograph[ing], and fingerprint[ing],'" Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. "DNA identification of arrestees, of the type approved by the Maryland statute here at issue, is 'no more than an extension of methods of identification long used in dealing with persons under arrest.'"
The majority emphasized how criminals can evade photographic identification, and even alter their fingerprints, but can never escape their DNA.
Maryland's law is part of a national project to standardize collection and storage of DNA profiles, according to the ruling
"Authorized by Congress and supervised by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) connects DNA laboratories at the local, state, and national level," Kennedy wrote.
"All 50 states require the collection of DNA from felony convicts, and respondent does not dispute the validity of that practice," Kennedy added. "Twenty-eight states and the federal government have adopted laws similar to the Maryland Act authorizing the collection of DNA from some or all arrestees. Although those statutes vary in their particulars, such as what charges require a DNA sample, their similarity means that this case implicates more than the specific Maryland law. At issue is a standard, expanding technology already in widespread use throughout the nation."
To support Monday's finding, Kennedy quoted a different search ruling he penned last year, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington.
"A suspect's criminal history is a critical part of his identity that officers should know when processing him for detention," Kennedy wrote. "It is a common occurrence that '[p]eople detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals. Hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh was stopped by a state trooper who noticed he was driving without a license plate. Police stopped serial killer Joel Rifkin for the same reason. One of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks was stopped and ticketed for speeding just two days before hijacking Flight 93.' Police already seek this crucial identifying information. They use routine and accepted means as varied as comparing the suspect's booking photograph to sketch artists' depictions of persons of interest, showing his mugshot to potential witnesses, and of course making a computerized comparison of the arrestee's fingerprints against electronic databases of known criminals and unsolved crimes. In this respect the only difference between DNA analysis and the accepted use of fingerprint databases is the unparalleled accuracy DNA provides."
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined a scathing dissent written by Justice Antonin Scalia.
It warns that Monday's holding creates the heaviest burden for individuals who are later acquitted of the crime for which they were arrested and subjected to a buccal swab.
Ironically, Maryland would have had a legitimate basis to collect King's DNA because he was convicted of the assault charges related to his 2009 arrest, Scalia wrote.
Fingerprinting is so useful in identifying people that it makes little sense to confirm a suspect's identification with DNA while giving law enforcement a new tool at solving old crimes, according to the dissent.
"Solving unsolved crimes is a noble objective, but it occupies a lower place in the American pantheon of noble objectives than the protection of our people from suspicionless law-enforcement searches," Scalia added. "The Fourth Amendment must prevail."
Scalia chided his colleagues in the majority for creating an invasive precedent.
"The court disguises the vast (and scary) scope of its holding by promising a limitation it cannot deliver," he wrote. "The court repeatedly says that DNA testing, and entry into a national DNA registry, will not befall thee and me, dear reader, but only those arrested for 'serious offense[s].' ... Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable consequence of today's decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason."
"Today's judgment will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes; then again, so would the taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane (surely the Transportation Security Administration needs to know the 'identity' of the flying public), applies for a driver's license, or attends a public school," Scalia added.
Suspicionless searches can only avoid the safeguards of the Fourth Amendment if law enforcement has a justifying motive apart from the investigation of crime, the dissent states.
"It is obvious that no such noninvestigative motive exists in this case," Scalia wrote. "The court's assertion that DNA is being taken, not to solve crimes, but to identify those in the state's custody, taxes the credulity of the credulous. And the court's comparison of Maryland's DNA searches to other techniques, such as fingerprinting, can seem apt only to those who know no more than today's opinion has chosen to tell them about how those DNA searches actually work."
Scalia carefully unraveled the majority's argument that DNA analysis aided law enforcement in "identifying" King.
"The portion of the court's opinion that explains the identification rationale is strangely silent on the actual workings of the DNA search at issue here," Scalia wrote. "To know those facts is to be instantly disabused of the notion that what happened had anything to do with identifying King."
Though the majority argued that DNA analysis is critical to the law enforcement objectives in booking arrestees, Scalia pointed out that state waited several days to test the DNA obtained from King at his booking in 2009. It was months before the sample was matched to the evidence from the unsolved 2003 rape.
"The truth, known to Maryland and increasingly to the reader: this search had nothing to do with establishing King's identity," he added.