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US Supreme Court allows DNA swabs of people under arrest

10 June 2013
Appeared in BioNews 708

The US Supreme Court has ruled that the police are allowed to collect DNA from people arrested and detained in custody who are suspected of having committed serious crimes. It said DNA identification was a negligible and reasonable intrusion that has long been used legitimately by police departments and may improve the investigative powers of the police.

In a five-to-four decision last week, the majority ruled that the practice of obtaining cheek swabs from those arrested in relation to serious crimes was a legitimate police procedure that was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. This swabbing is performed prior to conviction, as a method of collecting evidence, and enables the police to search for the DNA matches to a database of unsolved cases.

The DNA cheek swab was determined to be reasonable in that it was a form of identification, the majority said, similar to taking fingerprints or photographs. Justice Anthony Kennedy, on behalf of the majority vote, stated: 'When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offence and they bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, 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'.

The Fourth Amendment disallows 'unreasonable searches and seizures', and it was up to the Supreme Court to determine that cheek swabs, of suspects arrested in conjunction to serious crimes, were reasonable collections of information.

The dissent's rationale was that the suspect did not need to be identified so thoroughly after arrest; DNA testing was instead being used to solve other cold cases. For the dissenting side, Justice Antonin Scalia warned, '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 Kennedy said that 'a swab of this nature does not increase the indignity already attendant to normal incidents of arrest'. A cheek swab does count as a search of a person's body, but Justice Kennedy maintained it was a minor invasion.

This dispute was brought to the Supreme Court's attention through the case of Alonzo King Junior, who had his DNA collected in 2009 after being arrested on assault charges in Wicomico County, Maryland. The cheek swabbed DNA matched evidence from an unsolved rape case in 2003, for which King was later convicted.

Julian Sanchez, research fellow with the Cato Institute, told BBC News: 'It's an unfortunate fact of the American legal system that nearly every Fourth Amendment case to reach the Supreme Court involves - as this one does - a criminal seeking to have evidence suppressed'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Justices Allow DNA Collection After an Arrest
New York Times |  3 June 2013
Maryland v. King
US Supreme Court |  3 June 2013
Supreme Court: DNA swab after arrest is legitimate search
CNN |  4 June 2013
Supreme Court OKs DNA swab of people under arrest
USA Today |  3 June 2013
Supreme Court: Police Can Take DNA Samples in Arrests
Wall Street Journal |  3 June 2013
Viewpoints: Supreme Court and DNA samples
BBC News |  4 June 2013
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