In a 5-to-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that it's only reasonable to allow police to obtain DNA evidence via cheek swab from anyone arrested for a serious felony or violent crime. Furthermore, the high court said, states can enter suspects' DNA profiles into a federal database where they can be used in an effort to solve cold cases.
The ruling came as a surprise to many criminal defense and civil rights advocates, who had been somewhat reassured by other recent high court decisions that upheld citizens' privacy rights in the face of apparently unreasonable intrusion by government agents. The newly upheld DNA cheek swabs apply to people who have been arrested but not convicted of any crime, so many people who are later acquitted or released without charge will be subjected to the test and entered into the database.
Civil rights activists likened allowing the police to obtain a citizen's DNA against his or her will to allowing law enforcement to compel blood tests from DUI defendants -- which the Supreme Court just held was a violation of the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. In this case, however, the justices felt the more appropriate comparison was between the DNA swab and fingerprinting.
Civil rights groups fear that the gigantic database will lead to privacy abuses, false matches and, ultimately, wrongful convictions.
The case comes after Maryland police took a DNA cheek swab from a man accused of assault. His DNA was used to tie him to an unsolved rape case, and he was convicted. Maryland's high court ruled that the police had unlawfully compelled a man to comply with the test and so threw out his conviction.
At the moment, 26 states currently collect DNA from people accused of but not yet convicted of a serious felony or violent crime. In January, President Obama signed into law the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, which expanded the federal DNA database and offered grants to states wishing to begin participating.
Although the 5-4 majority was primarily made up of the more conservative justices, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a furious dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, that denounced the warrantless DNA gathering as a "suspicionless" search.
"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 Scalia wrote. "This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA whenever you fly on an airplane."
Source: USA TODAY, "Supreme Court OKs DNA swab of people under arrest," Richard Wolf, June 3, 2013