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U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Swabbing Arrestees


In a hotly contested ruling this past July, 2013, the US Supreme Court in a 4-5 ruling has decided to allow police agencies in the US to swab persons while booking them under arrest. The decision was applauded by law enforcement agencies who claim that this additional DNA testing will provided much needed assistance in identifying criminals.

Many US states already allow the oral swabbing of suspects as part of their booking procedure in addition to the standard finger-printing and photographing. Buccal swab samples are quick and painless to collect (to learn more about sample collection click here).

The ruling however will make this process standard operating procedure for police across the nation.

Supporters of the ruling say the increased collection of DNA samples, even from those who later are not convicted of any crime, will aid police investigators in linking existing crimes to new suspect pools. Those against the ruling fear swabbing suspects will lead to a slippery slope of allowing government agencies to take DNA samples from the public at large where no suspicion of a crime has occurred.

Scalia Dissents on Ruling

Conservative justice Anthony Scalia authored the high court’s dissent on this ruling. Scalia warned that allowing the testing of un-convicted suspects upon arrest could lead to big government wanting to DNA catalogue an ever-growing segment of the public.

The dissent from Scalia further opined that “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…This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA when you fly on an airplane – surely the TSA must know the ‘identity’ of the flying public. For that matter, so would taking your children’s DNA when they start public school.”

Case in Question

The case which brought the question of DNA testing to the chambers of the US Supreme Court involves a Maryland man convicted of rape in Wicomico County back in 2003. Alonzo King Jr. was arrested in 1999, stemming from an investigation for an earlier unrelated assault charge. At the time of his arrest Maryland allowed to sampling of un-convicted arrestees for DNA evidence. The sample collected from King Jr. was matched in the police database to an additional crime for sexual assault.

Attorneys for King unsuccessfully moved to suppress the DNA evidence on the basis of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of unlawful search and seizure, however the evidence was admitted and King was convicted in the trial of rape. The Maryland Court of Appeals later sided with King, citing Fourth Amendment protects persons against this type of search and seizure when they have not been yet convicted of any crime. Arguing that those suspects under arrest should enjoy a higher level of protection of their privacy than a convicted felon should, the court also stated the oral swabbing used by police was not necessary to identify him and therefore was unnecessary and unreasonable.

Future Precedent Set for DNA Sampling

Those against the ruling, including the ACLU, fear that government agencies are exercising increasing aggression in collecting biological samples from the American public. While it is true that whenever a police organization samples the public for DNA more open cases can be closed, many wonder where the limit lies. Public rights groups argue that without limitations being placed on overzealous law enforcement bodies, agencies will seek to test the public at large and data basing regular American citizens whom have committed no crime.

While the extent of the rulings effect on overall swabbing of the masses remains to be seen, for now at least anyone arrested will be catalogued using their DNA when law enforcement so desires.

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