Archive for the ‘Search and Seizure’ Category

Today the U.S.  Supreme Court hears arguments in Maryland v. King, the Court’s latest foray into  DNA testing.  Most reports have focused on the clash between law enforcement’s desire to test every arrested person in order to try to solve old cases, and those who advocate for a strict interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy.  For example, a report by the excellent Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio discussed the positions of police, who believe taking a sample from every person arrested is a minimal intrusion that can have a big payoff, and the arguments of defense attorneys and civil libertarians, who feel that allowing testing of all arrestees would surrender the basic principles of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful searches and seizures.

But there’s a question that may be far more important: from a crime fighting point of view,   is it a good idea for police to take and process a DNA sample for everyone who gets arrested?   Of course there will be some cases — such as the King case itself — in which the time-of-arrest sample leads to an arrest for a different, serious crime.  But taking samples from every arrestee may actually hurt our efforts to use DNA most effectively to make ourselves safe.  According to an article in Slate by Brandon Garrett and Erin Murphy, real public safety gains from DNA lie not with taking samples from every jaywalker and burglar and hoping for a hit in a cold case, but instead in taking many more samples from crime scenes.  In other words, we get more hits when we process samples from active crime scenes and match them against our already-large DNA database, instead of fishing for leads among the whole population of more than 12 million people arrested every year.  And all of those additional samples from arrestees crowd out and slow down the processing of samples from real crime scenes and victims, creating backlogs.  In other words, bigger DNA databases is not the answer to crime.

[B]igger is only better if DNA databases grow in the right way: by entering more samples from crime scenes, not samples from arrestees. DNA databases already include 10 million-plus known offender profiles. But a database with every offender in the nation cannot solve a crime if no physical evidence was collected or tested.  And police collect far too few such samples….The police solve more crimes not by taking DNA from suspects who have never been convicted, but by collecting more evidence at crime scenes.  Even worse, taking DNA from a lot of arrestees slows the testing in active criminal investigations….Backlogs created by arrestee DNA sampling means that rape kits and samples from convicted offenders sit in storage or go untested.

The bottom line: even if the Supreme Court says we can take a sample from every person arrested, doesn’t mean we should.

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post  here about two cases heard by the U.S.  Supreme Court about police use of drug-sniffing dogs: Florida v. Jardines and Florida v. Harris.   But now comes news that technology may take us a step further than those cases would.  It seems that scientists have built a device that mimics the power and accuracy of the canine nose.

Professors Carl Meinhart and Martin Moskovits at the University of California at Santa Barbara have engineered a device that uses a computer chip to imitate the extreme sensitivity of the cells in dogs’ noses using “microfluidic nanotechnology.” According to Dr. Brian Piorek, whose company, SpectraFluidics, has patented and exclusively licensed the technology, “Our patented nanoscale vapor detection platform has enabled us to create a … chip that biomimics a dog’s keen sense of smell.”   The bottom line is that this device is highly sensitive to vapor molecules that are an important part of TNT.    The full story is here.  And here is the an abstract for a study the scientists published on the technology in the journal Analytical Chemistry.  According to another story on the technology, there is no apparent reason that the device could not be built to detect almost any other type of vapor molecule, including of course vapor molecules from narcotics.  According to Professor Moskovits,  “The paper we published focused on explosives, but it doesn’t have to be explosives.”

Here’s the thing: this was all foretold, a generation ago, and the law may not be fully prepared for it.  The U.S. Supreme Court made its first decision about drug detection dogs in 1983 in the case of U.S. v. Place.  In that case, in which a trained dog was used to detect narcotics in a suitcase, the Court said that dogs were uniquely unintrusive, since they could search the inside of a concealed space (like a suitcase) without the police having to open it.  The dog would then give limited, binary information to the police officer: using a signal the dog was trained to give, the dog would “say” that drugs (or explosives, or whatever) either were, or were not, present.  Dogs were also, the Court said, almost unfailingly accurate.  Therefore, the Court said that a trained dog could be used on an object like a suitcase without a warrant, without probable cause — indeed without any evidence at all.  It was a far-reaching and very open-ended decision, though few saw it that way at the time.
But in a case the next year called U.S. v. Jacobsen, a dissenting opinion by Justices Brennan and Marshall recognized the full implications of the dog-sniffs-are-so-good-they-aren’t-searches idea.
…[T]he Court’s analysis is so unbounded that if a device were developed that could detect, from the outside of a building, the presence of cocaine inside, there would be no constitutional obstacle to the police cruising through a residential neighborhood and using the device to identify all homes in which the drug is present.
Well, it seems that the future is here.  If the Court uses its two dog sniff cases this year to give police the power to walk up to the door of a home with a drug-sniffing dog — and they might do this very thing in Florida v. Jardines — think of how easy it may be for every police department to equip all of its police officers with canine noses, to use whenever they want.  And, unless the Court curtails existing police power over the use of drug-sniffing dogs, the Constitution will have nothing to say about regulating the use of these devices.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court held arguments on cases involving police use of dog detection dogs, and the ability of citizens to sue when they think their conversations have been monitored under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  These are important matters, with important long-term implications for the privacy of all Americans.

I had the chance to discuss these cases on Pittsburgh Public Radio’s Essential Pittsburgh talk show.  To hear the complete audio file, click here.

In the dog sniff case of Florida v. Jardines, the Court looked at the basic question of whether police could walk a drug-sniffing dog up to a person’s front door to search (that is, sniff) for narcotics inside without a warrant or probable cause.  It’s an interesting question: the Court has allowed police to use dogs this way in past cases on objects like luggage and vehicles, but they have also said in other cases that the home is different and deserves more protection.  In the week’s  other dog sniff case, Florida v. Harris, the Court debated the accuracy of the dogs; it turns out, contrary to what most people think, they are not perfect.

In the FISA case, the Congress passed a statute that validated former President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping system.  This law allowed the government to listen in on communications of Americans in some limited circumstances without a warrant.  A number of journalists, lawyers for terrorism suspects, and human rights organizations sued, alleging that their communications were almost certainly tapped under the law.  But they could not know for sure, because the government keeps these taps secret and had refused to confirm or deny that any of the plaintiffs had had their communications intercepted.  The government therefore argues that the plaintiffs can’t prove they’ve been harmed.  It’s a classic Catch-22.