In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police have the right to gather DNA evidence without a search warrant after an arrest and before the arrestee has been convicted of a crime. The majority ruled that a cheek swab is no different from taking a fingerprint or a photograph.
Already 26 states collect DNA samples from suspects, a fact that had gone mostly unnoticed until 26-year-old Alonzo King was arrested in Maryland for second-degree assault in 2009. Maryland authorities took a DNA swab from King while he was in custody, and after running it through the state’s and the FBI’s databases, they found that it matched DNA from an unsolved rape committed in 2003.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Monday reversed a 2012 Court of Appeals decision in which Maryland’s highest court ruled in King’s favor, stating that the DNA swab was used for investigative purposes after his arrest—this was in direct violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, as he had not been convicted of any crime and was still presumed innocent.
Groups including DNA Saves have been advocating for the DNA swabbing of arrestees as a means to close unsolved cases, citing statistics that most crimes are committed by repeat offenders.
Justice Anthony Kennedy was among the five Justices who voted to reverse Maryland’s decision. “DNA identification of arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of a routine booking procedure,” Kennedy wrote. “Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined Justice Antonin Scalia in his written opposition to the court’s decision. His dissent began, “The Fourth Amendment 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. That prohibition is categorical and without exception; it lies at the very heart of the Fourth Amendment.”
Scalia’s defense of the Fourth Amendment continued in his scathing dissent: “Solving unsolved crimes is a noble objective, but it occupies a lower place in the American pantheon of noble objectives than the protection of our people from suspicionless law-enforcement searches.”
The dissenting Justices warned of likening DNA sampling to fingerprinting and taking photographs. They aimed to differentiate between methods of identifying and investigating an individual after their arrest and before a trial.
New technologies are increasingly presenting privacy challenges that complicate the typical conservative/liberal alliances on the Court.
USA Today reports, “Last year, they held that police could not attach a GPS tracking device to a car in order to monitor a suspect’s movements. This year, they ruled that using a drug-sniffing dog with reasonable suspicion was OK — but not at the door of a private home. And they decided that executing a search warrant after a suspect had left his home was out of bounds.”
Of course the major difference between last year’s decisions and the one the Supreme Court reached today is that DNA swabs may be used by authorities to implicate an arrestee in crimes for which they have no warrant or reasonable suspicion. In this way, the majority found, a DNA swab is similar to the procedural tasks of taking a fingerprint or a mugshot.
The minority warned of the broader implications of the decision.
“Make no mistake about it: Because of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason,” Scalia wrote in his dissent. “This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA whenever you fly on an airplane.”
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File