Supreme Court Upholds DNA Swabbing of People under Arrest

On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the police practice of taking DNA samples from people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime. The Court concluded in its ruling that it amounts to the 21st-century version of fingerprinting.

The ruling was 5-4.

The five justices in the majority ruled that DNA sampling, after an arrest “for a serious offense” and when officers “bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody,” does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches.

Under those specifications, the court stated “taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

While a cheek swab does constitute a search under the law, the court noted that it requires “but a light touch” and no surgical intrusion – a critical point, the court said, in determining whether it was considered reasonable.

At an oral argument in February, Justice Samuel Alito called the question perhaps the most important criminal procedure case the court had taken up in decades. Currently, twenty-eight states and the federal government take DNA swabs from people under arrest before they can be tried.

The case arose from the arrest of a 26-year-old Maryland man, Alonzo King, in 2009 on a charge of second-degree assault. The police took a swab of DNA from his cheek, ran it through a database and matched it to an unsolved rape from six years earlier.

King was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for the 2009 assault. The Maryland Court of Appeals later reversed the rape conviction on the grounds that the DNA sample was an unreasonable search.

“Today’s judgment will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes,” Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent. Justice Roberts voted with the majority Monday, as did Justice Alito, who tipped his hand at the oral argument by saying that DNA sampling “involves a very minimal intrusion on personal privacy.”

The Maryland law restricts DNA swabbing to people arrested for certain violent crimes, but justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, worried during the oral argument that other laws might not be so restrictive. Roberts wondered why they couldn’t be applied to simple traffic stops.

The court’s majority ruling also said that the government has an interest in identifying a person under arrest so that a judge can make an informed decision about granting bail. Today, it takes as long as two and a half weeks for DNA tests to come back, but lawyers noted before the court that instant DNA testing is not far off.

Representing clients throughout the region, the St. Augustine criminal defense attorneys at Canan Law are dedicated to providing aggressive, competent and high-quality legal counsel. We are prepared to defend your rights and help achieve the best outcome possible.

The St. Augustine criminal defense attorneys at Canan Law represent clients throughout the region, including Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra, Daytona Beach and Palatka, providing honest, professional, and compassionate legal services for each and every client.

If you or someone you love is facing criminal charges in Florida, call Canan Law at (904) 849-2266 or stop by our offices at 43 Cincinnati Avenue in downtown St. Augustine.

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