Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Limits needed on DNA collection

   DNA has turned into a useful law-enforcement tool. In the most high-profile cases, the genetic material has been used to exonerate people wrongfully convicted of crimes. But DNA has also grown into a popular tool for solving cold cases. Most states and the federal government permit its collection from people arrested for serious offenses.
    In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld this practice. But the case it considered, Maryland v. King, raised troubling questions concerning civil liberties. The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable searches, including the kind of DNA probe that Maryland allows. As Justice Antonin Scalia rightly noted in a blistering dissent, Fourth Amendment safeguards must come before the “noble objective” of solving crimes, desirable as the latter may be.
    In 2009, Alonzo J. King Jr. was arrested in Maryland for threatening a crowd with a shotgun. A cheek swab let police match his DNA with evidence from an unsolved rape in 2003. King was convicted of that crime and sentenced to life in prison. But after pleading guilty to a reduced charge in the initial arrest, making it no longer a qualifying charge, he challenged Maryland’s right to collect his DNA. The high court rejected his arguments. He also said the state had no reason to suspect him of rape.
    For police departments and crime victims, the stakes are substantial. DNA has proved especially helpful in unsolved rape cases such as King’s. Still, it must not become a tool for fishing expeditions against people who merely look guilty of something. All the states permit DNA collection from people convicted of felonies. This is a far more reasonable threshold than mere arrest. As it is, the court has unfairly penalized those who will be acquitted.
    Congress should weigh limiting the use of DNA by law enforcement, lest we wind up with a vast genetic database. In an era of eroding privacy, the Fourth Amendment has become more important than ever.

The Providence (R.I.) Journal, June 13, 2013.

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