A recent article in the New York Times discussed a crucially important case before the Supreme Court and how the ruling could impact how police officers and judges carry out their jobs across the country and here in Missouri. The issue is essential to the criminal justice process and was even described by one of the Justices as “the most important criminal procedure case” heard in decades.
The case is about a Maryland man, Alonzo Jay King, who was arrested for assault in 2009. A sample of the man’s DNA was taken by police officers when he was arrested but before King was ever convicted of anything. The sample was run in a state database and eventually matched to a rape that happened several years earlier. King was charged with that rape and eventually convicted. The case was appealed and the Maryland Court of Appeals found that the decision to take DNA from a suspect who had been arrested, but not yet convicted of doing anything, violated the Constitution.
The Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case late last month and several pointed out that while the practice of taking DNA samples from recently arrested suspects might help law enforcement, that does not mean that it will past Constitutional muster. Justice Ginsburg agreed during oral argument that taking DNA from a person prior to a conviction might run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, which says that police must secure a warrant before they can conduct a search.
The issue before the court was not about DNA collection in general, instead it was only about whether law enforcement agencies had the right to collect DNA from suspects who had not yet been convicted of a crime. Though the Maryland law at issue in the King case limits collection to only those arrested for “serious” crimes, Justice Roberts aptly pointed out that nothing stopped the legislature from abolishing that caveat and extending the DNA collection practice to all crimes, potentially even traffic violations. Questions were also raised on the other side of the argument about how much privacy suspects could claim they were entitled too when DNA is so easily accessed, even taking a sip of water can provide a wealth of information.
The justices spent most of their time discussing whether DNA is simply a high tech version of fingerprinting suspects, something that is done prior to a criminal conviction all the time. However, opponents of the law argued that fingerprinting is different because fingerprints are only used to identify suspects while DNA is being used to help solve closed cases.
The case is important not only for what happens in Maryland, but because here in Missouri we have a similar law on the books. Specifically, Section 650.055 of the Missouri Revised Statutes says DNA samples are to be collected at the time of arrest for those arrested for committing burglary or other serious felonies. The DNA sampling takes place at the time of an arrest rather than after a plea deal has been reached or a trial has been concluded. The DNA collection is to be taken during “booking” by local law enforcement officials. Under Missouri’s previous law, the DNA sample was only collected after a conviction was secured. This ensured that a case had made its way through the criminal justice system before a suspect had their DNA taken and analyzed.
Criminal defense attorneys who worry about similar DNA practice spreading to other states are watching the case closely. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in June.
If you’ve had a run in with the law and find yourself in need of a Missouri criminal defense lawyer capable of aggressively protecting your interests, contact our St. Louis criminal defense law firm today at (314) 863-0500.
Source: “Justices Wrestle Over Allowing DNA Sampling at Time of Arrest,” by Adam Liptak, published at NYTimes.com.