DNA Ruling by Supreme Court (Maryland v. King)
June is an important month – it includes Flag Day, Fathers Day, and it is also the month during which the United States celebrates LGBT Pride Month. What we often forget about June, though, is that it is the month during which the United State Supreme Court hands down the decisions it has made on the cases it has heard during the preceding term. This year, especially, there will be many important rulings on issues ranging from gay marriage to abortion to the ability to patent human genes. On Monday, June 3rd, the Court kicked off the month by ruling on two cases, one of which – Maryland v. King – is expected to have heavy implications on a wide range of issues in the near and not-so-near future.
The issue at the center of Maryland v. King was the constitutional question of whether or not police can take a swab of your mouth in order to obtain DNA when you are under arrest. The case arose when Mr. King, who was arrested in 2009 for assault was subjected, during his time under arrest, to the police swabbing his mouth in order to obtain his DNA, a practice sanctioned under Maryland state law. Once the state obtained his DNA, they ran it against a database of DNA in unsolved crime and it came up as match for a rape that had taken place six years before. With the DNA evidence linking him to the previously unsolved crime, the state prosecuted and convicted Mr. King of the 2003 rape. Mr. King then appealed ruling and the Maryland Court of Appeals overruled the conviction, arguing that the DNA collection was actually unconstitutional. The case was eventually argued before the Supreme Court and, on June 3rd, the Court ruled that the conviction stands and that the DNA collection of felony arrestees is indeed constitutional.
Writing for the slight 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy argued that DNA is a form of identity and thus knowledge of an arrestee’s DNA is important for the police. Additionally, because DNA can link arrestees to previous crimes, such knowledge can be crucial in determining the dangerous nature of an arrestee, which is a major factor in deciding whether to release them on bail. Kennedy acknowledged the fact that the ruling might be criticized on the basis of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the people of the U.S. the right to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Kennedy noted that the swabbing of the mouth in order to obtain DNA is a gentle procedure when compared to other methods such as, say, drawing blood.
Justice Scalia penned and delivered a scathing dissent on behalf of himself, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan. He argued that while the collection of DNA will probably lead to an increase in solving of previously unsolved crimes, the cost is a major freedom. Like Kennedy, Scalia referenced the Fourth Amendment and chastised the Majority for completely disregarding the fact that the Fourth Amendment protects the people against “unreasonable searches.” As he noted, King’s DNA was not swabbed in connection with a specific investigation – it was a “suspicionless” search. Furthermore, according to Scalia, the idea that police want to better understand the “identity” of the arrestee is a poor substantiation for the ruling. He reasoned, “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.
At the end of his colorful dissent, he invoked our Founding Fathers who fought with their lives to end a tyranny, which allowed the government free access to inspection of its citizens. He opined, “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.”
This ruling is a major precedent in the realm of criminal law. If you are arrested for a dangerous crime, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional for police to collect your DNA and run that DNA against a database of other DNA collected from crime scenes. This means that people who got away with a crime (for which there is DNA) in the past – even years and years ago – can still be implicated in the crime if they are arrested for a completely unrelated crime and their DNA is collected and matched with the DNA from the unsolved crime.