Court’s decision upholds collection of DNA samples

Much of the media attention at the end of the U.S. Supreme Court's current term has been focused on the Court's decisions regarding same-sex marriage and the Voting Rights Act. Nevertheless, this term saw some important decisions with implications for criminal law, particularly with respect to DNA testing.

The Court's decision in Maryland v. King arose from the arrest of Alonzo Jay King, Jr. in 2009. Police initially arrested King on assault charges, but a DNA sample taken from him during the booking procedure revealed his connection to an unsolved 2003 rape case. He was eventually charged and convicted of that rape.

Maryland law allowed the police in this case to take a swab from King, in addition to his photograph and fingerprints, when he was being processed at the station. Obtaining swabs for the purpose of DNA collection after arrest is allowed by 28 other states, as well as the federal government. Nonetheless, King appealed his rape conviction, arguing that taking a DNA sample violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful searches and seizures. The Maryland Court of Appeals - the highest court in the state - agreed and overturned King's conviction on that basis.

After the government appealed, however, the Supreme Court restored King's conviction, rejecting the argument that taking DNA samples from those suspected of crimes runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment. In the Court's view, taking a DNA sample from a suspect is no more invasive than taking his fingerprints. The process is not only a valuable source of information that can help with investigating unsolved crimes, it also provides police with a means of suspect identification. It is, in short, a legitimate routine booking procedure.

Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed with the majority's opinion. In Scalia's view, routine collection of DNA samples by Maryland and other states is not a technique to identify suspects, but rather to solve crimes. Justice Scalia's main objection was that this testing was being conducted not on someone convicted of a crime, but rather someone suspected of a crime.

Every state has a law requiring that law enforcement collect DNA samples from those convicted of felonies. As Justice Scalia pointed out, had the testing in this case been conducted after King had been convicted of the crime for which he was initially arrested, there would have been no Fourth Amendment issue.

The Court's decision in King is likely to mean that police departments everywhere will take DNA samples as a matter of course when someone is arrested. There is no doubt that the collection of DNA samples helps law enforcement agencies solve crimes, but the privacy concerns are very real, despite the Court's ruling in this case. This very well may be an issue that will require a second look.