Police officers can collect DNA samples as a routine part of arrests for violent crimes, the Supreme Court said in a ruling issued Monday.
The ruling — and the heated reaction to it — defied typical ideological divisions.
Justice Stephen Breyer, a more liberal justice, joined most of the court’s conservative bloc in backing the DNA collection powers. Justice Antonin Scalia, an ardent conservative, joined three liberals in the dissent.
Civil libertarians praised Scalia’s scathing dissent, which said the majority opinion should not be taken seriously.
The American Civil Liberties Union called Scalia’s dissent “convincing,” and argued that the majority ruling would erode important constitutional protections.
“Today’s decision creates a gaping new exception to the Fourth Amendment,” ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro said in a statement.
The court upheld a Maryland law allowing police to take DNA samples as a routine part of charging suspects with violent crimes.
The case involved Alonzo King, who was arrested in 2009 on charges of first-degree assault. Police took a DNA sample and matched his DNA to an unsolved rape. King was tried and convicted in the rape, but sued to have the DNA evidence suppressed.
He said taking a DNA swab without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
The Supreme Court said DNA constitutes identifying information just like fingerprints, and can be collected when a suspect is arrested and charged.
“In this respect the use of DNA for identification is no different than matching an arrestee’s face to a wanted poster of a previously unidentified suspect; or matching tattoos to known gang symbols to reveal a criminal affiliation; or matching the arrestee’s fingerprints to those recovered from a crime scene,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
The Obama administration defended Maryland’s law before the Supreme Court, arguing that swabbing DNA from a suspect’s cheek is hardly an invasive search and has tremendous value to law enforcement.
Scalia’s dissent dismissed the majority’s rationale. It “taxes the credulity of the credulous” to argue that DNA testing is simply a means of identification,” he wrote.
“It is safe to say that if the Court’s identification theory is not wrong, there is no such thing as error,” Scalia wrote.
The dissenters said the collection of King’s DNA was not meant to identify King, but rather to search for evidence in unrelated crimes in which King was not a suspect.
“The Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence,” Scalia wrote. “That prohibition is categorical and without exception; it lies at the very heart of the Fourth Amendment.”