Friday, May 31, 2013

Supreme Court considers whether police can gather DNA evidence

Is DNA the 21st century fingerprint?

DNA evidence undoubtedly offers police another tool in solving crimes, but should officers be taking saliva samples from everyone they arrest? Does it make a difference whether they are arrested for a serious crime?

These are among the questions being considered by the Supreme Court as they weigh a case that tests the Constitutionality of police gathering DNA evidence from crime suspects. The case stems from an incident in Maryland, but could cast doubt on laws in other states such as Florida, which allow law enforcement to collect DNA from anyone who is arrested for a felony offense.

"Most important criminal procedure case"

“This is the most important criminal procedure case this Court has had in decades,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., during oral arguments in the case back in February, during which he said DNA “is the 21st century fingerprint.”

If justices truly believe this about DNA, then the Supreme Court may well side with Maryland. But other justices voiced concerns about an individual’s right to privacy. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision before it wraps up its session for the year.

Fourth Amendment vs. DNA sampling

At issue in Maryland v. King is whether states are allowed to collect DNA from people arrested and charged with serious crimes, in light of the fact that the Fourth Amendment protects people from unwarranted and unreasonable searches.

In their brief to the Supreme Court, Maryland officials said that a “quick and painless” swab of the cheek is minimal, a procedure that is no more intrusive than other procedures detainees must routinely go through as part of an arrest.

Maryland case

In the Maryland case, a man named Alonzo Jay King, Jr., was arrested in April 2009 on assault charges for pointing a shotgun at a group of people. He was later convicted of second-degree assault, a misdemeanor crime. During his arrest, police swabbed his cheek for saliva. The DNA sample was later found to match an unsolved 2003 rape. King was later convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

King appealed, saying officers should not have taken the DNA sample during his arrest on assault charges. The Maryland Court of Appeals sided with King.

Is it premature to issue ruling?

In deciding the case, Supreme Court justices must weigh privacy concerns versus the government’s need to solve crimes. Another element that justices are considering is whether it is premature to make a ruling regarding a new technology which is still developing.

Crime victims’ advocates say the DNA evidence that is collected is crucial in solving crimes that would otherwise go unsolved.

Florida’s law regulating how DNA evidence is collected came under similar scrutiny back in 2009.

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