Supreme Court To Rule On Collecting DNA After Arrest

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ February 5, 2013

Later this month, the United States Supreme Court will rule on whether or not it is constitutional to obtain a DNA sample from someone who has been arrested for a crime but has not yet been convicted. This practice occurs in 28 states and in federal cases. The current law in Pennsylvania allows for the collection of DNA from those convicted of a felony and some misdemeanors. In January, President Obama signed into law the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection act, which will provide funding for other states to test people once they are arrested.

Proponents of this DNA collection contend that the practice is an invaluable tool in the fight against crime. Arlington County, Virginia Deputy Police Chief Daniel Murray says the practice is necessary because “it’s extremely important to quickly identify someone who would be a danger to society if he were on the loose.” But opponents believe that it is an egregious breach of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. New York University DNA expert Erin Murphy states, “This could be an unprecedented expansion of search power. The rule has been the government has to have a specific suspicion before they search.” Below are several issues with laws that allow for the DNA collection of someone arrested for a serious crime:

  • Consider this situation: Someone is arrested for a crime that allows for DNA collection. The DNA is collected, but he eventually pleads guilty to a lesser offense that would not allow for DNA collection. The person is later found guilty of a separate crime because of DNA collected from the original arrest. This happened in Maryland v. King (2012).
  • There are several felonies that are non-violent, such as burglary, some drug charges, and fraud. In the vast majority of these cases, DNA is not needed to identify a suspect. There is no need whatsoever to collect DNA from people arrested for these crimes.
  • DNA contains information about a person’s very being…gender, ethnic background, propensity for certain diseases, tendency to be thrill seeking, and a host of other traits. Unlike a fingerprint, DNA can be used for much more than just identification.
  • When someone is arrested, police may perform a “search incident to an arrest” without a warrant. Police may search the area immediately surrounding a person to prevent the person from obtaining a weapon, escaping, or destroying evidence. Police may not, however, go and search your house or vehicle without a warrant to determine if you committed any other crimes. Collecting DNA from someone who is arrested is analogous to this, since in both circumstances the State is looking for evidence of an unrelated crime that may or may not have ever occurred.

The actual DNA collection process (mouth swab) is very non-invasive, but its infringement upon an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights is anything but non-invasive. If the Court rules that this practice is unconstitutional, then people convicted of a crime because of it could have a new trial; if it is ruled constitutional, then it could become common practice across the country. What do you think…is DNA collection after an arrest constitutional? Let us know in the comments.

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