Law enforcement officials in Southern California are breathing a sigh of relief after the United States Supreme Court on Monday narrowly upheld state laws that allow the collection of DNA from people arrested – but not yet convicted – of felonies.
‘There is a sense of relief because it wasn’t entirely clear what the Supreme Court would do,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rauckaucus said. “They got it right.”
Writing for the majority in a 5-4 vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
Twenty-eight states, including California, collect DNA from people arrested for felonies. The ruling came in a case out of Maryland.
“I’m sure it’s going to solve crimes, but I’m also sure it’s going to save a lot of lives,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Roberta Schwartz. She wrote an amicus brief supporting Maryland.
Police and prosecutors say collecting DNA samples from felony suspects allows investigators to confirm identities and to determine if the person has committed other crimes. Neither Los Angeles prosecutors nor the California Department of Justice could immediately provide statistics on how often that’s happened.
In 2004, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 69. That measure required police to collect DNA from every adult and juvenile convicted of any felony starting in 2005, and every adult arrested for a felony starting in 2009.
Since the passage of Prop 69, the state has collected DNA samples from more than two million convicted felons and arrestees. A spokesperson for the California Department of Justice did not immediately return a call asking how many arrestees were never convicted.
A spokeswoman for the L.A. County District Attorney’s office also could not immediately say how many people were arrested but never convicted. The office filed more than 63,000 felony cases in 2012.
Writing for the minority, Justice Antonin Scalia raised concerns about police using DNA collected for the arrest of one crime to convict them of another. He cited the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against "searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime.” The Maryland court that earlier struck down DNA collection from arrestees called the practice “nothing more than a state fishing expedition,” according to NPR Reporter Nina Totenberg.
But police and prosecutors in California say an expanding DNA database has been invaluable to solving crime – and to exonerating the innocent.
LAPD spokesman Andy Neiman pointed to the infamous “Grim Sleeper” case as an example of how DNA is helping police. Investigators searched the state database for any DNA that might closely match evidence police had collected in the case – also called “familial” testing. They came up with a man whose father turned out to be the serial murderer.
“Had we not had the DNA of the Grim Sleeper’s son in the system, we never would have caught him,” Neiman said.
That was a unique case. “Familial” testing is relatively rare, and also facing legal challenges. But Neiman said the point is that the more DNA that’s in the system, the better chance of catching criminals.
“It’s been an important law enforcement tool here in California,” Rauckaucus said.