The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Maryland law that allows police to collect DNA on those arrested on serious charges and to enter that DNA into the national database.
In 2009, Alonzo Jay King, Jr., was arrested on assault charges in Wicomico County, Maryland. When King was booked, corrections personnel took a DNA sample via cheek swab as required under Maryland law. King’s DNA was matched to an unsolved rape from 2003. The DNA match was presented to a grand jury, which indicted King. A second DNA sample was taken from King after the indictment. This sample was also a match.
Attorneys for King moved to suppress the DNA evidence claiming that Maryland’s DNA collection law violated the Fourth Amendment. A circuit court upheld the law and King was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
King appealed the decision to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. The court struck down the portion of the law that requires collection of DNA from those arrested on felony charges. The appeals court ruled that the DNA swab was an unreasonable search because King’s expectation of privacy outweighed the “state’s purported interest in using King’s DNA to identify him.” Maryland appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held oral arguments in February.
On Monday, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that taking a DNA sample after a felony arrest is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and should be considered on a par with other booking procedures, such as fingerprinting and photographing. The Court determined that the additional intrusion of a check swab is minimal and is “markedly more accurate” than fingerprinting in identifying individuals.
In the written opinion of the case, the Court wrote that “the government interest is not outweighed by respondent’s privacy interests.” Further, the Court noted: “By comparison to the substantial government interest and the unique effectiveness of DNA identification, the intrusion of a cheek swab to obtain a DNA sample is minimal. Reasonableness must be considered in the context of an individual’s legitimate privacy expectations, which necessarily diminish when he is taken into police custody.”
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion on behalf of himself, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan. Scalia argued that the Maryland law does violate the Fourth Amendment, which “forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence.” Scalia noted that the majority opinion found the Maryland law constitutional because the DNA evidence collected was being used to identify those in custody. Crime detection, not identification is the goal, according to Scalia. “It is obvious that no such noninvestigative motive exists in this case,” he wrote.
Further, Scalia argued that the decision opens the door to widespread DNA collection. Even though the Maryland law limits the collection of DNA to those arrested on “serious offenses,” Scalia warned that the distinction may not hold in the future. Scalia wrote: “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 arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”