Our Voice: DNA tests on those arrested reasonably intrusive search

June 12, 2013 

Any erosion of our Fourth Amendment protection against government intrusions into our private lives raises a red flag.

So there is plenty to be concerned about the Supreme Court's divided ruling early this month that upheld a Maryland law allowing police to obtain DNA samples from suspects arrested for serious crimes.

The federal government and 28 states permit DNA collection before conviction, and more states are sure to follow suit after the Supreme Court decision.

In fact, state Sen. Darneille, D-Tacoma, has already announced plans to revive a bill that would make it easier for police to collect DNA samples.

Currently, police in Washington only can obtain DNA from convicted felons or with a court order.

Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, has vowed to fight the bill on the grounds that it's an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

"Taking DNA is a highly invasive search that goes way beyond identification," Narayan told KUOW radio. He said DNA samples give the government access to a person's "susceptibility to diseases, character traits, parentage, kinship, perhaps even predisposition to a particular sexual orientation."

But obtaining a sample isn't particularly invasive. It involves a simple mouth swab, quicker and less of a bother than having your fingerprints taken.

Narayan's real issue seems to be the potential for abuse once government has collected a sample of your DNA. That's a valid concern but one that can remedied by statute and case law.

An imagined scenario where government examines DNA to identify an individual's propensity for criminal behavior, for example, doesn't justify preventing reasonable use of this crime-solving technology.

The Maryland law only applies to suspects arrested in connection with serious crimes. An expectation of privacy isn't realistic after an arrest. Fingerprints, photographs, even cavity searches, are routine during booking. The sample is destroyed if the defendant isn't convicted.

A quick swab with a cotton tip isn't as intrusive as other arrest procedures. It is, however, much more effective than fingerprints or mugshots in solving crimes.

The use of DNA technology has led to arrests in cases that have gone unsolved for decades. Perhaps more importantly, DNA tests have resulted in the release of hundreds of Americans who were falsely convicted.

Alonzo King, the man who challenged the Maryland law, was matched to DNA recovered from a 2003 rape victim. He was convicted of rape and sentenced to life without parole.

We're not particularly convinced by the argument that only those with something to hide should worry about their Fourth Amendment rights.

Under that logic, the innocent shouldn't object to the police rifling through their closets whenever the mood strikes them. There's nothing to hide, right?

But DNA evidence, at least for now, truly targets the guilty and isn't much of an extra intrusion after an arrest.

Safeguards need to be in place to prevent abuses. The Supreme Court and state legislatures need to provide the necessary guidance.

But allowing police to collect DNA samples under stringent rules will help convict the guilty, prevent others from being victimized and free the innocent.

That's a powerful law-enforcement tool, when appropriately used.

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