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DNA testing may go on

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., calling tests of the DNA of individuals arrested by police “a valuable tool for investigating unsolved crimes,” on Monday cleared the way for the state of Maryland to continue that practice until the Supreme Court can act on a challenge to its constitutionality.  The Chief Justice’s four-page opinion is here.  A Maryland state court ruling against the practice will remain on hold until the Justices take final action.

In a divided ruling in April, Maryland’s Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — ruled that it violates the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals who have been arrested — but have not been convicted — to test their DNA and put the results in a file to help in identifying criminal suspects.  That ruling, the Chief Justice said on Monday, conflicts with decisions of other appeals courts and there is a good chance that the Supreme Court will vote to resolve the controversy.  That could come in the next Term starting October 1.  Roberts said there also is a “fair prospect” that the Maryland decision will be overturned by the Justices.

Roberts said that the practice involves “an important feature of day-to-day law enforcement practices in approximately half the states and the federal government.”  Moreover, the opinion said, Maryland can send the samples for inclusion in a nationwide database maintained by the FBI, and thus the Maryland court’s ruling will have an impact beyond Maryland alone, making the FBI file “less effective for other states and the federal government.”

Maryland’s highest court had upheld the state’s DNA sampling law eight years ago, but that ruling was limited to the practice only as it applied to individuals who already had been convicted of serious crimes.  Its April ruling against sampling noted that the practice had been extended beyond convicted individuals, and was now being used against all persons who are arrested for a crime of violence, an attempted violent crime, a burglary or attempted burglary.

A Wicomico County man, Alonzo Jay King, Jr., was arrested in 2009 on assault charges.  His DNA was collected and put into the state’s database.  While he was awaiting trial on those charges, his DNA profile generated a match to a DNA sample that had been collected from a rape case in 2003 that had remained unsolved.  That was the sole link of King to that crime.   He was convicted on the rape charge, and sentenced to life in prison.   He then challenged the sampling of his DNA when he was only an arrestee.

Although the Chief Justice on Monday said that King’s attorneys, in opposing a stay of the state court ruling, had raised “sound points” in their written brief, that was not enough to overcome the need for the state over the next several months to employ “a tool widely used throughout the country and one that has been upheld by two courts of appeals and another state high court.”

If the state’s coming petition for review is granted, the stay will remain in effect until the case is decided.  Otherwise, the stay would lapse if review is denied.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, DNA testing may go on, SCOTUSblog (Jul. 30, 2012, 2:29 PM),