In yesterday’s post, I discussed Maryland v. King. Those arguments, heard at the Court on February 26, considered whether a state should be permitted to take a DNA sample from every person arrested (not convicted — arrested) for a felony. I asked in my post that we put questions of individual privacy aside, and instead ask whether such wide sampling would be a good idea from a crime-solving point of view. (Some experts do not think so, as discussed in the post.)
Today, let’s put the question of privacy back into the equation, because that appears to be what the Justices will do.
In his recap of the Feb. 26 argument, Scotusblog’s Lyle Denniston tells us that the key points were posed by two of the Court’s conservative justices. According to Denniston, Justice Samuel Alito clearly favored the idea that law enforcement should be able to take these samples. DNA sampling “is the 21st century fingerprint” Alito said at least twice. According to his way of thinking, there is no constitutional difference (in terms of the degree of intrusion on individual privacy) between taking a fingerprint and taking a DNA sample.
The other pole of the argument was taken up by conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia. When the lawyer for the state of Maryland used a long list of cases solved through DNA testing to support her argument in support of the law, Justice Scalia reacted forcefully. According to the National Law Journal: “Well, that’s really good!” Scalia exploded. “I’ll bet if you conducted a lot of unreasonable searches and seizures, you’d get more convictions, too. That proves absolutely nothing.” In other words, the question isn’t whether the state’s action solves cases; some methods of solving cases are simply not allowed under the Constitution, even if they could be proven to work better than others. The question is whether the Constitution — in this case, the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches — allows the state to do what it wants to do.
During Tuesday’s argument, Justice Alito commented that King could be “the most important criminal procedure case this Court has had in decades.” That will depend on how the Court decides the case, which it will do sometime before the end of June. But one thing we do know: the debate between law enforcement’s desire to use all the tools it can to fight crime and the Constitution’s protections of the individual against state intrusion will go on.