Supreme Court Will Decide if Police Can Gather DNA Upon Arrest

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 13, 2012

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On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will ask them to decide whether or not it is Constitutional for police to collect DNA without a warrant from people who have been arrested for serious crimes.  Twenty-seven states allow for police to collect DNA from suspects who have not yet been convicted of a crime based on the charges leading to their arrest, and the Court’s decision bring resolution to a growing national debate.

The Case in Question: Maryland v King

The case before the Supreme Court is Maryland v King, which involves Alnozo King, Jr who, after being arrested and subject to a DNA swab in 2009, was convicted of an unrelated 2003 rape.  Using the DNA evidence obtained from his arrest for a separate crime, King was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  Maryland’s highest court overturned King’s conviction saying that the 2009 DNA swab was not needed to arrest him, and that the practice of taking DNA from persons before they are convicted violates privacy rights granted to every person who is under police investigation. 

It is generally agreed that the process of taking DNA from persons convicted of a felony is acceptable because those individuals have taken action to diminish their right to privacy, however, the Maryland court was unwilling to agree that persons who have not yet been convicted should be treated the same as felons.  It is worth noting that the decision was not unanimous as two judges believed that individuals who are arrested under suspicion of a violent crime should not have the same expectation of privacy from police investigation as the rest of the public.

Taking DNA at the time of an arrest has been supported by prosecutors and victims’ rights groups who argue that DNA matches from individuals who are arrested can stop repeat criminals and provide evidence in unsolved rape and murder cases.  Defense lawyers and civil liberties groups counter that, unlike fingerprints, DNA reveals the genetic makeup of an individual, which is something that should not be so readily accessed for suspects who are presumed innocent.

Constitutional Questions at Stake

While it can be valuable to public safety to compile a DNA database of persons arrested for serious crimes, the practice is highly questionable because it allows for police to take action without obtaining a warrant.  The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution prevents unlawful search and seizure by police, which gives every citizen a right to privacy that prevents police conducting a search without first obtaining a warrant.  Supporters of the practice point out that upon arrest suspects are searched and fingerprinted without a warrant, however, a biological search is a more significant invasion of privacy.

This debate presents an interesting choice for the Supreme Court.  On one hand, allowing police more investigative power can lead to a number of convictions that put dangerous people behind bars.  On the other hand, the Constitution places a strong emphasis on protecting citizens from over reaching government authority, and compiling a DNA database of persons before they are convicted can lead down a dangerous path.  Police power must strike a delicate balance between the authority of the state and the rights of citizens, and allowing the collection of DNA upon arrest raises important questions about how far a state can go to investigate crime.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Maryland v King early in 2013, and a decision is expected sometime in late June.

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