Maryland law enforcement officials worry that a recent court ruling on DNA collection could jeopardize convictions and make it harder to solve crimes.
Last week, a Maryland court of appeals, in the Alonzo Jay King Jr. v. State of Maryland decision, prohibited collecting DNA from suspects who have only been charged with a crime.
“King’s Fourth Amendment right, as an arrestee only, to be free from unreasonable, warrantless searches was violated by the Maryland DNA Collection Act, which authorizes law enforcement to collect DNA samples from individuals that merely have been arrested, but not yet convicted,” the ruling states.
Maryland authorities have agreed to stop taking DNA samples for now, but some feel they’ve lost a valuable crime-fighting tool. The ruling takes away a tool that not only helps catch criminals, but helps exonerate the innocent, Prince George’s Police Chief Mark Magaw said.
Since 2009, DNA of the arrested has resulted in 65 arrests and 34 convictions for burglaries, rapes, and robberies, according to data provided to the Washington Post by the governor’s office. Police and prosecutors also say the ruling could jeopardize the convictions of 34 violent criminals whose cases relied on DNA taken after being charged in different cases.
King’s DNA was collected when he was arrested in 2009 on assault charges. The DNA came back as a hit for an unsolved sexual assault case from 2003. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for the sexual assault. Then he appealed.
In a 5 to 2 ruling, “the Maryland Court of Appeals sent King’s case back to the Wicomico County Circuit Court and threw out the DNA evidence against him,” the Washington Post reported. The court said King’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated by taking his genetic material and comparing it with old crime scene samples.
Solving cold cases is a legitimate government interest, but “a warrantless, suspicionless search cannot be upheld by a ‘generalized interest’ in solving crimes,” the court wrote.
Across the country, courts have issued mixed opinions on when DNA collection is appropriate.
Proponents of DNA collection say the practice is no different from fingerprinting, which also occurs upon arrest. Fingerprints are also routinely checked against existing databases to confirm identity or check for existing warrants.
In Virginia, police can take a DNA sample after arrests for violent crimes. In the District of Columbia, samples can be taken upon conviction. Twenty-six states have laws similar to the Maryland DNA Collection Act.