At issue in the case the Supreme Court considered Tuesday is whether collecting DNA from an arrestee without first obtaining a warrant is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
The US Supreme Court heard argument Tuesday in a case testing whether government officials can routinely collect a person’s DNA at the time he or she is arrested and then use that DNA sample to try to link the individual to unsolved crimes.
At issue in the case, Maryland v. King (12-207), is whether taking a DNA sample from an arrestee without first obtaining a court-authorized warrant is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
DNA has become an essential law-enforcement tool, not just in its ability to conclusively identify an individual but, more important, through its ability to conclusively link suspects to cold cases.
In effect, DNA is becoming in the 21st century what fingerprinting was to the 20th – except better.
But there’s a problem. Unlike a fingerprint, DNA material contains a plethora of highly personal information bound within a person’s genetic code. When the government seizes DNA material, it is taking control of more than just the ability to isolate an identifying pattern unique to one individual. With advances in genetic science, DNA might someday reveal information about an individual’s susceptibility to future diseases and perhaps even personality traits, scientists say.
Several justices expressed concern that seizing a DNA sample from an individual to solve cold cases is a search under the Fourth Amendment. What justifies the state taking such action without a warrant?, they wanted to know.
Katherine Winfree, Maryland’s chief deputy attorney general, told the justices that the state did not need to obtain a warrant to collect DNA samples from arrestees because people in police custody have already surrendered a substantial amount of their liberty and privacy.
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