For decades, law enforcement has routinely used fingerprints to identify an individual in custody and match them to those found at the scene of a crime. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether DNA can be considered “the 21st century fingerprint.”
The case before the Supreme Court centers on Alonzo King, who was arrested in 2009 on misdemeanor assault charges and whose DNA was collected at the time of his arrest. His DNA was then submitted to the federal DNA database to find out if it matched DNA collected as evidence in any other crimes. King’s DNA was found to match the DNA from a rape case six years prior. For this crime, King was tried and sentenced to imprisonment for life. However, King appealed, and the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. The court found that King’s DNA was not collected as evidence in the crime for which he was arrested; therefore, “the DNA collection was nothing more than a state fishing expedition for anything prosecutors could catch.” Maryland prosecutors subsequently appealed the court’s decision.
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments from both sides. The attorney representing Alonzo King argued that DNA collection, unlike fingerprinting, is invasive, as it gives law enforcement access to a person’s entire genetic history. In addition, the lawyer argued that collecting DNA without a warrant or suspicion of a crime is a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
Currently, 26 states as well as the federal government have laws related to the collection of DNA, none of which require a warrant or suspicion to do so. While some state’s laws, such as Maryland’s, only collect DNA during arrests for serious crimes like felonies, this is not the case for all states. King’s lawyer argued, “As matters currently stand, if you are arrested for any federal offense, including speeding on the GW Parkway, the federal government will, as a matter of course, collect your DNA and prepare a profile and enter it into the federal database.”
The Attorney General for the state of Maryland responded that being handcuffed, searched, and sitting in jail after arrest are all more invasive than DNA collection, but are allowed. Those arrested, he argued, give up some liberty when they enter the criminal justice system. In addition, DNA can be used to find the perpetrators of unsolved crimes.
During the hearing, the Supreme Court seemed divided on the issue. Their decision could determine whether law enforcement’s desire to collect DNA during an arrest to solve cold cases trumps an individual’s right to privacy.