The Supreme Court’s recently held in Maryland vs. King that DNA swabs of people who are arrested, but haven’t been convicted for a serious crime does not violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. The 4thAmendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizures and requires that all warrants be supported by probable cause. Writing for the majority of the Court, Justice Kennedy concluded that “DNA identification was a reasonable search that should be considered part of the booking procedure.” In a scathing dissent, Justice Scalia argued that DNA identification leads to “suspicionless” searches, which violates the “probable cause” element of the 4th Amendment.
Alonzo King was connected to an unsolved Maryland rape case after his DNA was taken upon being arrested for an assault charge. He was ultimately convicted based on the DNA that was taken due to his arrest for assault. The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his conviction ruling that the police need a warrant or at least a reason to suspect him of another crime before taking his DNA. The State, supported by the federal government, then brought the case the Supreme Court.
In weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision debates surrounding the constitutionality of DNA identification became more heated. On one hand, a cheek swab upon being arrested is not unreasonably invasive and not all that different from when law enforcement takes your fingerprints upon arrest. When your fingerprints are taken, even for minor infractions, they are run through a national database to see if there are any matches to a prior crime. Fundamentally DNA identification would follow the same process. Additionally, DNA identification may help bring at-large criminals to justice in unsolved crimes, as it did in the King case.
On the other hand, DNA identification upon arrest is a search without probable cause, which is unconstitutional under the 4th amendment. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that since the Constitution is the supreme law of the land it should not be violated even if the results of the violation are beneficial. Therefore, unless authorities have probable cause to believe that a person in custody could have been involved in a prior crime, they should not be allowed to take DNA to search for a connection. DNA identification upon arrest for serious crimes could be a slippery slope that could lead to DNA being taken for trivial violations.
Currently the federal government and twenty-six states, including North Carolina, collect DNA samples upon arrest for serious crimes.