DNA Testing: Changing Investigations

DNA Testing: Changing Investigations

Alonzo King, a convicted Maryland rapist, may not be the ideal poster boy for individual privacy rights. However, his case is at the center of a tight debate about how and under what circumstances law enforcement officers should be allowed to collect an individual’s DNA. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling, coming down on the side of law enforcement. In their 5-4 decision, the Court held that DNA collection is useful and legal for police to do, even when there is no other evidence of a specific crime. Still more interesting is that the justices failed to follow their usual voting patterns. Associate Justice Scalia, who normally votes in favor of giving states more power, wrote the sharply worded dissent. All of the female justices, Ginsberg, Sotomayer and Kagen, voted with him.

What the SCOTUS decision on DNA collection means

Police no longer have to have a reason to suspect a person has committed a crime to collect his or her DNA. Once the person is “in the system,” police now have the right to check the person’s DNA against evidence for any number of offenses. For instance, a person can be arrested for shoplifting or DUI and his or her DNA can be compared to samples in murder or rape case files. Although the Supreme Court suggested DNA be used only for serious crimes, they indicated they had no real expectation that this barrier would stay in place.

DNA Swabs are Already in Practice

Twenty-eight states currently have laws in place to collect DNA swabs from persons arrested for serious crimes, according to ABC News. It is already standard procedure in all 50 states to collect samples from persons convicted of a crime. These samples are entered into a nationwide Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database administered by the FBI. The Washington Post reported that court documents state the database currently has more than 1.1 million samples.

Individual Rights Threats

The recent Supreme Court decision isn’t the only governmental threat to individual rights. In the past two decades, several laws have been enacted that infringe on American citizens’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights. Chief among these is the 2001 Patriot Act, which gives law enforcement the right to listen into phone conversations, monitor email communication and bug cars and living spaces without a court order if terrorism is suspected. In addition, there is proposed legislation in Congress that would allow law enforcement to monitor Internet records without a warrant if terrorism is suspected. Americans were recently made aware of mass surveillance of telephone records by the National Security Agency when whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, leaked evidence to The Guardian in London.

What This Means to You

You may think that the Supreme Court’s recent decision doesn’t affect you. Don’t judge so quickly. Remember, under the new ruling, you only have to be accused of a crime for law enforcement to collect your DNA, not convicted. Now, not only can police take your wallet with your business credit card and family photos in it, but can also take your DNA, regardless of the arrest circumstances.

The question of collecting DNA of suspects is likely to resurface again soon. As DNA technology changes and public opinion edges from favoring privacy rights to favoring government rights, we are sure to see the DNA question come into the limelight again.

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