DNA and the warrantless search

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that police do not need to get a warrant to take DNA from people who have been arrested for serious crimes. One of the justices had indicated earlier this year that the case is one of the most important criminal cases to come before the court in decades.

By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Maryland law that allows police to collect DNA, without first getting a warrant, from persons who are arrested. It was an interesting collection of justices on the majority — Chief Justice John Roberts, justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. On the dissenting side were conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen.

In Minnesota, people convicted after being charged with a felony are required to submit DNA samples. It was just a little more than a year ago that the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the practice.

In that case Justice Christopher Dietzen wrote that those people “do not enjoy the absolute liberty to which every citizen is entitled. Just as other punishment for criminal convictions curtail an offender’s freedoms, a court granting probation may impose reasonable conditions that deprive the offender of some freedoms enjoyed by law-abiding citizens.”

But Justice Helen Meyer suggested said “DNA is often referred to as the ‘blueprint’ for life. DNA stores and reveals massive amounts of personal, private data about that individual,’ including information about that ‘person’s health, propensity for particular disease, race and gender characteristics, and perhaps even propensity for certain conduct.’ Genetic information is not only ‘information about us,’ but also ‘information about our parents, our siblings, and our children.’”

“Given the potential of DNA technology to expose extremely private information, I find these full-scale personal DNA searches highly intrusive,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision could expand DNA’s role because it allows warrantless DNA “searches” of people who are arrested, not just those convicted.

“There can be little reason to question ‘the legitimate interest of the government in knowing for an absolute certainty the identity of the person arrested, in knowing whether he is wanted elsewhere, and in ensuring his identification in the event he flees prosecution,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in support of today’s national decision.