Photo by Mica Baldwin (some rights reserved)

One of the areas of criminal law that I have always found interesting involves the standards for warrantless searches. Today, I am revisiting an important criminal law case from a few years ago known as Maryland v. King, 133 S.Ct. 1958 (2013). In Maryland v. King, the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide if the Constitution prevented the routine collection of DNA from someone who is arrested. The challenge to collecting DNA without a warrant was based on the Fourth Amendment. As a refresher, the Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment protects each of us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government and stands as one of the pinnacles of privacy law by restricting government conduct.

The facts in Maryland v. King were rather simple. In 2003 a woman was raped. She reported the attack and a underwent a rape exam. A sample of the unknown perpetrator’s DNA was obtained and entered into a Maryland DNA database. Six years later, Mr. King, was arrested on unrelated assault charges. After his arrest, a routine warrantless DNA sample was taken by means of a cheek swab.

Mr. King’s DNA sample was run through the Maryland DNA database and matched the sample from the 2003 rape exam. Charges were then brought against Mr. King for the 2003 crime. Mr. King’s lawyers moved to suppress the DNA evidence based on the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. The motion was overruled and Mr. King was convicted.

The United States Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the matter. In a 5-4 decision the United States Supreme Court decided that the Maryland DNA collection law did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The close vote by the Court demonstrates a clear divide when it comes to strictly enforcing Constitutional rights.

In analyzing the case, the Court first found that the collection of DNA was a search and therefore that the Fourth Amendment analysis applied. After settling this foundational question, the Court turned to whether the warrantless collection of DNA from anyone who is arrested is an unreasonable search or seizure. The Court found that it was not unreasonable specifically stating that individualized suspicion was not needed to conduct the DNA search. A lawful arrest by itself is a sufficient basis for such a search.

In reaching its conclusion, the five justice majority balanced the various governmental interests versus the suspect’s reasonable expectations of privacy. The Court found that the government had a legitimate interest in the accuracy of identity of the arrested person, protecting the public from the dangers presented by the arrested person, eliminating flight risk, and exonerating those innocent of crimes actually committed by the arrested person. The Court concluded that these interests outweighed any reasonable expectations of privacy, especially where there was only a “minimal” intrusion, such as a check swab. The Court went on to say that DNA analysis was very similar to fingerprinting and relied on a series of cases that found fingerprinting did not violate the Fourth Amendment. As a result of this case, it is now clear that DNA is the fingerprinting of the 21st Century.