Last month, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling on a case that pitted modern law enforcement tools versus ancient privacy rights. In Maryland v. King, the Court held that police can collect DNA from people arrested but not yet convicted of serious crimes. More than half the states already use this procedure to assist in solving crimes. (Georgia is not one of them).
Twenty-six states allow for the collection of DNA from those arrested for felonies or other serious crimes. The information is uploaded into a national database run by the federal government in order to find matches with unsolved crimes.
That is exactly how Alonzo Jay King was connected to a Maryland rape case for which he was ultimately convicted. King was arrested in 2009 on an assault charge. He was then linked by DNA evidence to the 2003 rape case.
The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, ruling that police needed a warrant or at least reason to suspect him of another crime before obtaining his DNA (by way of a cheek swab). The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
The 5-4 majority opinion upheld the DNA procedure used in Maryland. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said “DNA identification of arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of a routine booking procedure. Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
President Obama and Congress will probably be happy with this decision. Last year, Congress passed the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, which Obama signed in January. It creates a grant program to help states pay for expanding their DNA collection systems.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Obama said of taking DNA from arrestees in a 2010 appearance on America’s Most Wanted. “This is where the national registry becomes so important.”
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a brilliant and pointed dissent for himself and three other justices, charging that the decision will lead to an increased use of DNA testing in violation of the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches.
Scalia said, “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 warned. “This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA whenever you fly on an airplane.”
Scalia went on to say “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. The proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would not have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.” Whew, Scalia is certainly one of kind.
Whether you agree or disagree with Maryland v. King, the case seems to be destined to be relied on by criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges for the foreseeable future. Justice Samuel Alito described it as being “the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades.” He may very well be correct.