Police Can Take DNA Samples From Arrestees, U.S. Supreme Court Rules

  • June 03, 2013
  • By Maggie Clark
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Maryland law allowing police to take DNA samples from arrestees is “legitimate police procedure,” affirming similar laws in 28 other states. DNA samples being tested at the state crime lab in North Carolina. (AP)

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that DNA swabs taken from people arrested but not convicted of a serious crime are a “legitimate police procedure,” just like fingerprints and photographs, and lawful under the Fourth Amendment.

The decision affirmed laws in 29 states, including Maryland, which brought the case before the high court. The state's law had been struck down by the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2011.

“By comparison to the substantial government interest (of solving crimes) and the unique effectiveness of DNA identification, the intrusion of a cheek swab to obtain a DNA sample is a minimal one,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority.

“I think the decision will make it easier for other states to enact these laws,” said Nevada state Sen. Debbie Smith, a Democrat who sponsored the state's new arrestee DNA law signed last week.

“When we first started the debate here, a lot of people went to that (Fourth Amendment privacy) question,” she said. “But this decision makes it much easier for legislators to decide to seize the arrestee DNA issue and see it through.”

The minority opinion argued that the current DNA collection system is overwhelmed and not equipped to handle the backlogs it already has.

As Stateline has previously reported, increased demand for DNA samples taken from both arrestees and convicted offenders have exacerbated DNA backlogs in the states, often leaving other crime scene evidence untouched.

But Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley applauded the decision. “Today's Supreme Court ruling is important because it confirms an important weapon in our arsenal to fight violent crime in our state,” he said. “Together, we will continue employing innovative and meaningful strategies to reduce crime, including using DNA, so that we can take violent offenders off the streets and protect our families and children.”

The court ruled that police may take cheek swabs to affirm suspects' identities and check their criminal histories, Kennedy wrote. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice John Roberts also joined the majority opinion.

DNA samples are catalogued in state databases and sent to a national DNA database managed by the FBI. Every time a new sample is input, the database searches for a “match.”

The nation's first so-called arrestee DNA law originated in New Mexico, where 22-year-old Katie Sepich was raped and murdered in 2002. Three years later, Katie's killer was identified when a DNA sample taken from Gabriel Avila matched DNA found at the murder scene.

Katie's parents advocated for a New Mexico law allowing arrestee DNA swabs and took their campaign nationwide. In January, President Barack Obama signed the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, which provides grants to states to expand their DNA databanks.

“This is a resounding victory for both law enforcement and civil libertarians,” said Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who strongly advocated for the arrestee DNA law, which took effect in 2009.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent also signed by Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, argued that the current DNA system is too backlogged and not equipped to handle the DNA swabs police take. In the Maryland case, Scalia wrote, it took  the state 18 days to produce the results of suspect Alonzo King's DNA sample in court, and Louisiana and Ohio took an average of about 20 days.

“The Court's holding will result in the dumping of a large number of arrestee samples — many from minor offenders — onto an already overburdened system: Nearly one-third of Americans will be arrested for some offense by age 23,” Scalia wrote.

Kennedy did not seem worried about the technology. “Just as fingerprinting was constitutional for generations prior to the introduction of IAFIS (the FBI's integrated automated fingerprint identification system), DNA identification of arrestees is a permissible tool of law enforcement today,” he wrote. “New technology will only further improve its speed and therefore its effectiveness.”