An overview of the latest SCOTUS ruling involving DNA collection
The U.S. Supreme Court has seemingly clarified a new definition of privacy as it pertains to the 4th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Justices have upheld a Maryland law allowing police to collect a person’s DNA upon arrest and have indicated that the law is constitutional under this amendment.
The 4th amendment
The 4th amendment to the U.S. Constitution essentially states that individuals have certain privacy rights against unreasonable search and seizures by government officials. The language specifically states that it is the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
But what’s considered an “unreasonable” search and seizure? The Supreme Court has interpreted this definition throughout the years and classified certain types of behavior as either a reasonable or unreasonable.
Obtaining fingerprints during the booking process after an arrest, for instance, has been deemed a reasonable seizure.
The case and procedure
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision originated from a case called Maryland v. King.
In 2009, a Maryland man was arrested for assault. Upon his arrest, officers took a DNA sample from him (pursuant to Maryland law that allows officers to take a sample of a suspect’s DNA upon the arrest for certain crimes). However, as a result, officers were able to link King’s DNA to a previous rape kit sample. He was later convicted despite the initial, unlinked reason for obtaining the DNA.
King appealed his conviction and argued that the Maryland law that permits officers to take a sample of his DNA was an unreasonable search and seizure under the 4th amendment and thus unconstitutional.
The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed and set aside his conviction.
The U.S. Supreme Court later granted certiorari to decide whether the Maryland law was constitutional under the 4th amendment.
The Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court ruling was recently released. The Court upheld the conviction reasoning that obtaining DNA was not a violation of his privacy nor an unreasonable seizure pursuant to the 4th amendment.
The Court stated that since police already routinely seek to connect individuals arrested to past crimes by taking their mug shots and fingerprints, obtaining their DNA is no different and isn’t unreasonable.
Opponents, including the dissenting Supreme Court Justices, disagree and argue that the involuntary taking of DNA from a suspect-who has yet to be convicted of a crime-and using that suspect’s DNA to convict for an unrelated crime is an unreasonable search and seizure under the 4th amendment and simply a violation of that suspect’s privacy.
Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent concluded that, “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.”
Effects of the decision
As a result of the ruling, the 4th amendment rights of criminal defendants have been forever altered. King’s conviction will stand and so will many others. It’s estimated that 50 other people were convicted as a result of Maryland’s authorized DNA collection procedures.