Mandatory DNA Testing Is a Double-Edged Sword
Modern DNA analysis has revolutionized the criminal justice system. It has been used to prove — without a doubt — that suspects were involved in crimes and to free people who were wrongly convicted. The DNA sample is taken by swabbing the inside of a person’s cheek.
If you are convicted of a serious crime, your DNA becomes part of state and federal crime databases, where it can be searched for association with other crimes. But what if you are arrested but released or acquitted? You may still be swabbed and cataloged in the database.
Public Safety Versus the Fourth Amendment
The federal government and 28 states require that the police take DNA samples from everyone who is arrested for certain serious crimes and even some misdemeanors. No warrant is required.
Civil rights groups have questioned the constitutionality of these laws, claiming that they violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. Now, it looks as if they have lost this battle.
The U.S. Supreme Court in a 2013 decision narrowly ruled that police can routinely take DNA samples from people who are arrested for a serious crime but not yet convicted. They can search national databases to see if the DNA matches any samples from unsolved crimes.
DNA Swabbing Is Reasonable
The Supreme Court stated that “taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
While a cheek swab does constitute a search under the law, the Supreme Court noted that it required “but a light touch” and no surgical intrusion.
In light of this decision, the remaining 22 states are likely to adopt similar laws. The national database run by the FBI, with more than 11 million DNA samples already on file, is likely to grow dramatically.
Details of the Case
This important decision came in the case of Alonzo King, who was arrested in Maryland in 2009 for menacing a crowd with a gun. A DNA sample swabbed from his cheek and submitted to a national database showed a match to an unsolved rape that took place six years earlier.
King was tried and convicted of the rape, but the conviction was thrown out by the Maryland Court of Appeals on grounds that there was no warrant and no individualized suspicion that justified taking the DNA sample. The Supreme Court restored the conviction.
DNA Sampling Exonerates the Wrongly Convicted
Since its advent in the 1980s, scientific DNA sampling has also proven the innocence of hundreds of individuals wrongly convicted of crime, including 18 people on death row. In many of these cases, DNA sampling led to identification of the true perpetrator of the crime.
Wrongful convictions result from eyewitness misidentification (a factor in 72 percent of the cases), improper forensic science (50 percent of cases), false confessions and incriminating statements (25 percent of cases) and unreliable informant testimony (18 percent of cases). DNA sampling will greatly reduce such errors.