In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that police can take DNA swabs at the time of arrest without a warrant to do so, saying it was a legitimate practice under the fourth amendment. This decision has stirred up quite a controversy, from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, especially from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union. Keep in mind, DNA can be taken at just an arrest. No conviction is needed for sample collection.
This case, officially named Maryland v. King, originated from a rape that Mr. King committed in 2003. In 2009, he was arrested and “charged with first- and second-degree assault for menacing a group of people with a shotgun” (Justice Kennedy Court Opinion). At the time of arrest, a DNA sample was taken, and was later used to connect his DNA to that of the assailant from the victim in the 2003 rape.
Reviewing the case, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the seizure of Mr. King’s DNA was “unlawful seizure because obtaining and using the cheek swab was an unreasonable search of the person. It set the rape conviction aside” (Justice Kennedy Court Opinion). The case went from court to court until the appeal to the Supreme Court began in February, 2013.
There is no question that DNA sampling and testing has brought on significant forensic ability to investigate and prosecute crime, but the effects of this ruling are what many people and organizations are adamantly opposed to. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had the following to say about the ruling: 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.”
The traditionally conservative Justice raises an important point; in attempting to prosecute crime, people who are either rightly or wrongly arrested for a crime are put into a national registry, and those of us who know history know what happens when registries are made of people (think Nazi Germany). If you are wrongly arrested for a crime you did not commit, no were involved in, do you really want the government to have your DNA on record to use against you later on?
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that “Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” The question that comes to mind for me is what about those that are completely innocent?
Hypothetical: a crime is committed, and police want to ask a friend of the suspected assailant about their relationship. Say the person being questioned tries to flee rather than answer the questions. Fleeing police gives probable cause to believe that the person is somehow involved. If and when this person is taken into custody for additional questioning and fleeing police, will his DNA be taken as a sample? What will be done with this newly collected DNA?
While in rare cases, some crimes may be solved by having this database of DNA, but are we giving up our liberty for security? Benjamin Franklin warned us of this, and said that if we did that, we neither deserved, nor would have either. Is letting the government hold your DNA not giving up some of your liberty?
Read more on the case from Cornell University Law School here.