Supreme Court approves warrantless DNA sampling, likens it to fingerprinting and photographing
By End the Lie
Law enforcement can now force suspects arrested for serious crimes to give samples of their DNA without a warrant, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday.
This is surely going to be a controversial decision, as their ruling siding with Monsanto over patents on “self-replicating technology” in May was.
Both law enforcement officials and privacy groups were keeping a close eye on the Court’s decision in this case because at least 27 states, along with the federal government, currently have regulations requiring suspects to give DNA samples when arrested for allegedly committing certain crimes, regardless of conviction.
In the states that have these laws, the DNA samples harvested from suspects are then cataloged in state and federal databases, again without conviction.
While DNA evidence is obviously a good thing, especially when it exonerates innocent men, the problem is some states have refused to allow DNA tests when they could prove men sentenced to death to be innocent.
Will this ruling change that disturbing practice? Probably not. This ruling seems to be more about harvesting DNA than exonerating inmates.
The Supreme Court’s decision reversed a 2012 court ruling which said that taking DNA samples from suspects without a warrant was a breach of the Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, ruled that taking a DNA sample was really no different from fingerprinting, photographing, tattoo matching, etc.
“A DNA profile is useful to the police because it gives them a form of identification to search the records already in their valid possession,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. “In this respect the use of DNA for identification is no different than matching an arrestee’s face to a wanted poster of a previously unidentified suspect; or matching tattoos to known gang symbols to reveal a criminal affiliation; or matching the arrestee’s fingerprints to those recovered from a crime scene.”
“DNA is another metric of identification used to connect the arrestee with his or her public persona, as reflected in records of his or her actions that are available to the police,” Kennedy wrote.
According to Kennedy, to not “insist on fingerprints as the norm would make little sense to either the forensic expert or the layperson.”
The majority of the Supreme Court also said that DNA sampling “may have the salutary effect of freeing a person wrongfully imprisoned for the same offense” Indeed it can, and has, the only problem is that states can block the tests as seen in the cases linked above.
The four justices who did not side with the majority saw some disturbing implications in the ruling.
“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,” Justice Antonin Scalia warned in a dissenting opinion.
Scalia, a conservative, was joined in his dissent by three of the more liberal justices including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
The Court’s ruling was in the case of Maryland v. King which began with the arrest of Alonzo King for a gun-related assault charge.
“King was convicted of the gun charge, but officials also matched his DNA to evidence from an unsolved rape case,” Gavin Aronsen wrote for Mother Jones. “King was convicted of the gun charge, but officials also matched his DNA to evidence from an unsolved rape case. That, King argued, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Maryland’s Supreme Court agreed.”
More background on the case was given in a February report by Mother Jones.
The court in Maryland saw fingerprinting very differently from the Supreme Court.
“A fingerprint, for example, reveals nothing more than a person’s identity,” notes David Kravets for Threat Level. “But much more can be learned from a DNA sample, which codes a person’s family ties, some health risks and, according to some, can predict a propensity for violence.”
Scalia used a quite effective argumentum ad absurdum to show just how dangerous the Supreme Court’s decision really is.
“Today’s judgment will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes; then again, so would the taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane (surely the Transportation Security Administration needs to know the ‘identity’ of the flying public), applies for a driver’s license, or attends a public school,” Scalia wrote.
“Perhaps the construction of such a genetic panopticon is wise. But I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection,” he added.
Obviously the issue was not whether DNA samples can be taken from convicts. The question was if DNA samples can be taken from arrestees – long before they’re convicted or have the charges against them dropped – and placed into a database. The disturbing answer is apparently, “Yes.”
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