The U.S. Supreme Court seriously compromised Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches by upholding laws in Florida and other states that allow police to collect DNA samples of anyone arrested for a serious crime. The 5-4 court majority contended the samples are justified to identify suspects, but the real reason behind the samples is to determine if the suspect can be linked to other, unsolved crimes. The court's tortured logic may result in solving more crimes, but the cost to constitutional protections from suspicionless law enforcement searches is too great.
Maryland vs. King involves Alonzo King, who was arrested in Maryland in 2009 on assault charges. A DNA sample was taken three days later using a cheek swab, in accordance with a Maryland law that allows police to collect DNA from people charged with violent crimes. King's DNA sample was later transmitted to the FBI's national database and matched to a 2003 rape of which King was later convicted.
King claimed that searching his DNA amounted to a fishing expedition and that violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches. Maryland's highest court agreed, but a five-justice majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling on Monday and upheld Maryland's DNA collection law.
The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy upheld DNA sample-taking as a legitimate booking procedure similar to fingerprinting and photographing. He said the interests of law enforcement in identifying the person in their custody by using an effective and minimally intrusive search such as a DNA cheek swab override the privacy interests of the accused.
Maryland's law is similar to one in Florida passed in 2009 and signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist covering people accused of a felony. Twenty-eight states and the federal government allow DNA collection before conviction. A strong dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia and joined by three of the court's liberals explains why DNA collection and database-matching should be limited to people convicted of a crime. King's identity was not the reason to take his DNA, since law enforcement knew who he was before they arraigned him, Scalia argued. The process was conducted solely for use in investigating unsolved crimes to see if King's DNA matched that of unknown assailants — the very kind of search that can only be justified under the Constitution if police had a basis to suspect King of another crime.
"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," Scalia wrote.
This dangerous precedent makes it easier for the government to disregard individual rights in its collection and use of DNA. It does not take into consideration whether suspects were rightly or wrongly arrested, or whether they were convicted. It does erode constitutional rights. It also opens the door to even more disturbing discussions about further expanding the opportunities for law enforcement and police to take DNA samples of even more Americans who have not been convicted of any crime.