The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that law enforcement may collect the DNA of arrested suspects, according to an article in USA Today.
The case will have significant implications for both the criminal justice system as well as the privacy rights of citizens.
DNA collection is a tool already used by law enforcement in investigations, particularly as evidence in the prosecution of cases. But the question that came before the Supreme Court is whether it is constitutionally permissible to collect DNA from arrested suspects in order to connect them to unrelated crimes—not to provide evidence for the crime for which they were arrested.
Currently, twenty-six states allow law enforcement to collect DNA from those arrested for felonies or other serious crimes. The suspect’s DNA is then compared against a national database to determine if the suspect may have committed other crimes.
This is how Alonzo King, arrested for assault in 2009, was connected to a 2003 rape. He was subsequently convicted of the rape, but the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his conviction on the grounds that law enforcement should have had a warrant before collecting his DNA.
The state appealed the case, which then landed in front of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court justices were split on the issue, and the vote came down to a narrow 5-4 verdict.
Justice Kennedy compared DNA to fingerprinting, which has long been a tool used by law enforcement to identify suspects: “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.”
Justice Scalia, who dissented from the majority opinion, argued that this use of DNA is a violation of the Constitution’s protection against “unreasonable” searches: “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. This will solve extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA whenever you fly on an airplane.”
Justice Sotomayor expressed concern that DNA collection could eventually come into schools and workplaces.
Opponents to the ruling worry that false hits, contamination, sample switches, and fraud could lead to the wrongful conviction of innocent people. Privacy advocates also worry about the amount of information that law enforcement can glean from a DNA sample. Unlike fingerprinting, which can only identify a person, DNA samples include information about a person’s entire genetic makeup, including their health, medical history, sex, race, and psychological profile.
The potential for abuse from the government with regard to DNA collection is worrisome. Of course, there are merits to DNA collection, including the ability to solve cold cases. But the rights of citizens must also be protected, and if law enforcement is to use DNA, it should do so under strict controls.