The Supreme Court agreed last week to review a case that will decide whether or not law enforcement can collect DNA samples from all people arrested for, but not yet convicted of, violent crimes. Though this might seem like a rational way to investigate and prevent crime, civil liberties advocates are concerned that this kind of policy paves the way for a Big Brother-like state that collects the genetic information of all citizens, law abiding or not.
All 50 states currently collect DNA, whether a saliva or blood sample, from those who have been convicted of felonies. More than half of the states, including California, take this one step further and require violent crime suspects — typically those who have been arrested on rape, murder or assault charges — to submit to a mouth swab or blood sample despite the fact that they have not yet been proven guilty in a court of law.
Judges in many states that currently support this policy have questioned whether it violates the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as outlined by the Fourth Amendment, which says “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” If we are to avoid the growth of an overly invasive justice system and surveillance state by the time our generation inherits the duties of exacting justice, such a collection of very personal information must be struck down as unconstitutional.
The issue came to the immediate attention of the Supreme Court following the overturning of the rape conviction of a Maryland man, Alonzo King, on the basis of DNA evidence. Authorities collected DNA from King upon his arrest for an unrelated assault charge but found it matched with an unsolved rape from years earlier. The judges in the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the rape conviction by citing a violation of the exclusionary rule, a clause that holds that evidence obtained by the prosecution outside the parameters of the Fourth Amendment is inadmissible and must be thrown out.
What the Supreme Court will deliberate in Maryland v. King is whether allowing states greater capacities to fight crime outweighs the need to protect the privacy of individuals.
Though law enforcement is no doubt a vital function of the state and must be kept as a priority in government, it is even more vital that it doesn’t overstep the boundaries set by the Constitution that were put in place to counteract the potential for state tyranny over the individual. Given the very personal nature of DNA samples, it is not too much of a stretch to claim that allowing laws, such as the one that originally led to King’s conviction, would constitute such a violation.
California passed a similar law in 2009, but it is even more intrusive than the one up for debate in the Supreme Court. Unlike in Maryland, samples collected from California citizens who are released or acquitted of their charges are not automatically thrown out, meaning that their genealogy is available for usage by law enforcement regardless of their determined innocence. A decision by the Supreme Court against Maryland would likely render such a law unconstitutional.
Advocates of these laws undoubtedly have a compelling point. Having DNA information available to state and federal law enforcement agencies would greatly assist in apprehending criminals and make prosecution of the true perpetrators easier. As ideal as that would be, however, the state cannot be the keeper of its citizens’ complete biological profiles.
As society moves further into the 21st century, it is difficult not to take advantage of enhanced scientific capabilities at the expense of long-established principles of just governance. Maryland v. King puts this dilemma to the test. For the sake of the individual’s right to privacy now and in future generations, the Court must rule against such tempting shortcuts to criminal justice.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in political science and Middle East studies. Her column “Leaning Toward Liberty” runs Mondays.