US Supreme Court Rules No Warrant Needed to Collect DNA if Arrested

Impact of Maryland v. King Ruling on Arizona: What it gives and what it takes.

1220700_dna_sequence.jpgPrivacy rights were outweighed by law enforcement interests in the United States Supreme Court’s June 3rd ruling in Maryland v. King. In this case, the Court was divided 5-4 over the question of DNA sample collection. All states and the federal government require convicted felons to submit DNA samples to law enforcement. But this was the first case to look at whether even those who are merely arrested (and assumed innocent until proven guilty) can be required to submit their DNA to law enforcement.

The Supreme Court ruled that states may–without a warrant– routinely collect DNA samples from people arrested for a “serious crime.” This was a highly anticipated ruling because it is the Court’s first on the privacy of genetic information. The ruling focused on Maryland’s law, which requires DNA sampling of those arrested for serious crimes, supposedly for the purpose of identifying them. However, the case’s language was so broad that it opened the floodgates for all states to permit DNA sampling of people arrested, even if they are arrested only on a minor charge.

The case arose from a criminal defendant’s appeal after he was convicted for a felony only because the Maryland police were able to match his DNA in a federal database. After the defendant was arrested for assault, the police swabbed the defendant’s cheek to get a DNA sample and they submitted the sample to a federal DNA database. The swab was not necessary to prove the assault.

The federal database to which the sample was submitted matched the defendant’s DNA to DNA collected from a crime scene six years earlier. Because of the routine cheek swab, the defendant was convicted of the earlier serious crime.

The Maryland Court of Appeals threw out the defendant’s conviction on the grounds that a cheek swab violated Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure. Usually the State must obtain a warrant if it wants to conduct any kind of invasive physical testing. The State appealed the appellate ruling.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, compared DNA sampling of the arrested to fingerprinting which is legal. The Court overturned the Court of Appeals. Justice Kennedy wrote that states could collect DNA from people arrested for “serious offenses.”

The majority opinion reasoned that Maryland’s law supported the well-established and legitimate governmental interest of identifying people in custody as opposed to solving crimes. The majority also reasoned that a cheek swab is minimally intrusive from a physical perspective.

Justice Scalia, joined by three liberal justices, wrote the dissent. He warned, “As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”

This ruling impacts all people in states that authorize DNA testing, including Arizona. At present, Arizona’s law enforcement is able to collect DNA from anyone imprisoned for a felony offense, including those on probation. However, Arizona has also passed legislation to allow for the collection of DNA from those who are merely arrested, not convicted, of a serious crime.

This group includes those who are arrested for certain sexual offenses, burglary, prostitution, and other serious, violent or aggravated offenses. Although this group represents a relatively narrow number of criminal defendants now, as Justice Scalia pointed out the Supreme Court’s ruling is broad enough that states could widen the net of people who are required to submit to DNA sampling. As Justice Scalia suggests, in the future, DNA sampling may be part of police booking procedure even in traffic cases.

Additional Resources

DNA Laws Database
Mesa Police Department
Mesa Municipal Court


If you are arrested, your future may depend on hiring an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of James Novak at (480) 413-1499.

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