Supreme Court agrees to review Maryland DNA ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to review a Maryland high court decision that generally bars police from collecting DNA samples from people arrested for committing or attempting to commit a violent crime.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments early next year in the appeal brought by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. A decision in the case, Maryland v. King, No. 12-207, is expected by the summer.

“We are pleased by today’s decision and look forward to the opportunity to defend this important crime-fighting tool before the nation’s highest court,” Gansler said in a statement Friday.

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender will oppose the state’s position before the Supreme Court.

Stephen B. Mercer, who heads the public defender’s forensics division, said he too looks forward to the justices’ consideration of the case.

“We are confident that when the court examines the merits of the case, it will agree that persons who are presumed to be innocent should not be subject to the warrantless seizure and indefinite retention of their intensely personal genetic information,” Mercer said Friday.

The Supreme Court’s agreement to hear the case has been anticipated since July, when Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stayed the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling. Roberts said in a July 30 order that there is a “reasonable probability” the Supreme Court would hear the case and a “fair prospect” it will overturn the Maryland court’s decision that DNA collection on arrest is constitutional only when absolutely necessary to identify the suspect.

“[I]n the absence of a stay, Maryland would be disabled from employing a valuable law enforcement tool for several months — a tool used widely throughout the country and one that has been upheld by two [U.S.] Courts of Appeal and another state court,” Roberts wrote. He was referring to decisions by the 3rd and 9th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals and the Virginia Supreme Court.

The chief justice issued the stay at Gansler’s request. Roberts handled the request because he is the Supreme Court justice assigned to handle appeals in the 4th U.S. judicial circuit, of which Maryland is part.

In the King case, the Court of Appeals said the Maryland DNA Collection Act passes constitutional muster only when collecting a genetic sample is the sole way police can identify the arrestee. Other purposes, such as using the DNA sample to investigate additional crimes, require a warrant lest the police violate the arrestee’s constitutional Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, the court held.

In its decision, the court overturned a rape conviction and life sentence of Alonzo Jay King Jr., whose DNA sample — taken after his arrest for an unrelated assault in 2009 — was linked to the 2003 sexual attack.

The police had confirmed King’s identity in the 2009 assault through photographs and fingerprints and thus “had no legitimate need for a DNA sample in order to be confident who it arrested or to convict him on the first- or second-degree assault charges,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the 5-2 majority.

“We simply will not allow warrantless, suspicionless searches of biological materials without a showing that accurate identification was not possible using ‘traditional’ methods,” Harrell added. “[T]here are conceivable, albeit somewhat unlikely, scenarios where … the state may secure the use of DNA samples, without a warrant under the Act, as a means to identify an arrestee, but not for investigatory purposes, in any event.”

Other courts that have considered the issue have reached different conclusions — as did Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, who dissented from the King decision, saying arrestees have a “significantly diminished expectation of privacy” with regard to police taking a DNA sample from them.

Barbera was joined in dissent by retired Judge Alan M. Wilner, who sat by special assignment.

As for the assault charge, King was found guilty of a misdemeanor count of second-degree assault and sentenced to four years in prison with all but one year suspended.

One comment

  1. We want to emphasize that what Maryland Attorney General Gansler is trying to do is to bank DNA on people only suspected of, not only convicted of a crime. That is what makes this so unconstitutional and really questions how Gansler was elected as a Democrat. We are in a hyper-securitized society for the time being; a result of the hold that global/defense hawk pols have on our government at the Federal and State level. Gansler’s stance shows that Maryland leads in this hawkish stance that suspends civil liberties for all.

    One can imagine a scenario of police wanting to see a person who is innocent become a member of this DNA database and simply having to arrest that person under suspicion only to have that person released. Unfortunately this isn’t far-fetched, it is already happening. So citizens in Maryland will cross our collective fingers that higher courts will offer a reasoned ruling and we will need to start work on replacing incumbents in Maryland who did not shout out against this action.