The Supreme Court is about to decide what one justice says may be its most important criminal procedure case in decades — whether the police have the right to take a DNA sample after they make an arrest.
The question before the justices is whether taking DNA, often with the quick swab of a cheek, is the latter-day equivalent of fingerprinting or violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
“This is what’s at stake,” Justice Samuel Alito said during an oral argument Feb. 26. “Lots of murders, lots of rapes that can be — that can be solved using this new technology that involves a very minimal intrusion on personal privacy.”
The case arises from the arrest of a 26-year-old Maryland man, Alonzo King, in 2009 on a charge of second-degree assault. The police took a swab of DNA from his cheek, ran it through a database and matched it to an unsolved rape from six years earlier.
King was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for the 2009 assault. The Maryland Court of Appeals later reversed the rape conviction on the grounds that the DNA sample was an unreasonable search.
The question before the court has vast implications: 28 states and the federal government take DNA swabs from people under arrest before they can be judged innocent or guilty. In Maryland alone, DNA samples during arrests have led to 75 prosecutions and 42 convictions since 2009, Katherine Winfree, the state’s chief deputy attorney general, told the justices.