Cold Case Closer

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that, depending on the outcome, could make it much harder for law enforcement agencies to use one of the most valuable tools they now have in solving cold cases – DNA.

The heart of the case involves whether police have the right to take DNA samples from people who have been arrested without getting a judge’s approval first.

In 2009, Alonzo King Jr. was arrested in Maryland for assault. DNA was taken from King that was then found to match evidence taken from a 2003 rape. King was then arrested for the rape and later convicted.

However, last July, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled the state law authorizing DNA collections from people arrested, but not yet convicted, violated the unlawful search and seizure statute of the Fourth Amendment. That same month, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a stay of the lower court’s decision and the full court voted to hear the case.

All 50 states and the federal government allow cheek swabs from convicted criminals in order to check DNA against state and federal databases. However, Maryland and 27 other states allow DNA testing following felony arrests but before a trial. In King’s case, he later pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor assault charge. Misdemeanors are not covered by Maryland’s warrantless DNA sample.

DNA is an invaluable too. Many cold case crimes – including many murders – have been solved by the use of these DNA samples. The vast majority of these crimes would never have been solved without DNA evidence. And because this DNA evidence allowed suspects to be identified, arrested and brought to trial, victims – and families of victims – have a chance to see those responsible brought to justice.

King’s lawyer claims a person’s DNA “contains far more information and far more personal information than an individual’s fingerprint.” Maybe, but the taking of a DNA sample after an arrest – especially a felony arrest – is not the same as carrying out a search warrant on someone’s home or property.

Justice Samuel Alito calls DNA testing the 21st century’s version of fingerprinting. “If (fingerprinting) was permissible, and has been assumed so for decades … to fingerprint anybody who’s booked, why is it not permissible to take a DNA sample from anybody arrested?”

Exactly. Criminals should be afraid of DNA evidence. They should not be allowed to escape justice for a crime in their past if there is a simple, unobtrusive method available to help police solve crimes.

By upholding Maryland’s – and in effect, other states’ similar laws, the Supreme Court will not be authorizing an army of CSIs with mouth swabs in their hands out on the streets forcing innocent people to surrender DNA samples.

The Fourth Amendment will not be cracked by forcing someone arrested for a serious crime to provide a DNA sample.