DNA Testing at Arrest Gets U.S. Supreme Court Review

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether states can routinely collect DNA samples when people are arrested for a serious crime, in a case that may limit privacy rights and give police a powerful investigative tool.

The justices yesterday said they will hear Maryland’s bid to revive Alonzo Jay King Jr.’s conviction for a 2003 rape. The state’s highest court threw out the conviction. It said authorities violated King’s constitutional rights when they arrested him on unrelated assault charges in 2009 and took a cheek swab that provided DNA evidence connecting him to the rape.

At least 26 states and the federal government obtain DNA samples from newly arrested people. Advocates say the practice has helped police investigate thousands of crimes and prevented countless others from taking place.

A state “can solve crimes faster, it can identify suspects with greater accuracy, and it can reduce the risk of setting a dangerous criminal free due to its failure to identify him as such,” Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler argued in the state’s appeal. Maryland collects DNA evidence from anyone arrested for crimes of violence or burglary.

The court yesterday also agreed to hear a challenge to a central prong of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 civil rights statute.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, voting 5-2, said DNA samples “contain a massive amount of deeply personal information.” The state court said the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches, protects people who haven’t been convicted from having to provide DNA evidence.

Expectation of Privacy

“Although arrestees do not have all the expectations of privacy enjoyed by the general public, the presumption of innocence bestows on them greater protections than convicted felons, parolees or probationers,” the Maryland court majority said.

King’s lawyers urged the Supreme Court not to take up the case, arguing that the nine justices would benefit from letting more judges consider the issue first. The lower courts that have taken up the question are divided.

Chief Justice John Roberts blocked the Maryland court ruling in July, letting the state continue collecting DNA samples.

“Crimes for which DNA evidence is implicated tend to be serious, and serious crimes cause serious injuries,” Roberts wrote. “That Maryland may not employ a duly-enacted statute to help prevent these injuries constitutes irreparable harm.”

National Database

Roberts said the Maryland decision would have nationwide ramifications because the state’s system is linked to a national DNA database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In April the Supreme Court upheld the use of strip searches of newly arrested people. The court divided 5-4, voting along ideological lines.

Maryland contends that DNA swabs are little different from fingerprinting, a procedure that has been a routine part of police booking for decades. The state argues that it uses DNA samples only for identification purposes and doesn’t analyze the genetic coding that determines a person’s biological traits.

The court will hear arguments in February or March and rule by the end of June in the case, Maryland v. King, 12-207.

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