Opinions Differ on Maryland DNA Collection Ruling

As previously reported on Conduit Street, Maryland is preparing to challenge a recent Maryland Court of Appeals decision prohibiting the collection of DNA from people arrested, but not yet convicted, for a violent crime or felony burglary.  If appealed, the case would likely be heard by the United States Supreme Court and other states with similar DNA collection provisions are watching the Maryland case closely.  The Supreme Court has never addressed whether the collection of fingerprints of arrestees for purposes of checking linkages to other crimes and this case could also bring into question that longstanding public safety practice.  Different commentators and opinion writers have offered their thoughts on the matter:

In a May 4 Gazette.net column, Blair Lee weighs the benefits and certainty DNA samples provide in solving old cases against Constitutional privacy protections.  He also raises the concern that if you cannot use DNA from arrestees to solve cold cases, why should you be able to use fingerprints.   Mr. Lee argues that a Supreme Court decision is needed to bring clarity and conformity.

Matching a suspect’s genetic DNA to crime scene DNA is relatively noninvasive (a cotton swab inside the cheek), is 100 percent reliable (unlike eyewitnesses, confessions and juries), convicts the guilty while exonerating the innocent and, best of all, provides an ever-expanding DNA database helping police solve cold cases by comparing new DNA samples to old DNA from unsolved cases.

Unfortunately, all those high-tech law enforcement devices also shrink the privacy of everyday citizens.  …

But here’s a big problem: If the police can’t use a suspect’s DNA to go fishing for prior crimes, is it OK using fingerprints for the same purpose?

The question is much more simple for Baltimore Suncolumnist Dan Rodricks.  In a May 2 Baltimore Sun opinion column, he argues that arrestee DNA collection is constitutional and proposes that citizens provide a DNA sample to the federal government at birth.

We’re probably going to need the Supreme Court to settle [the DNA] issue, and because that court already approved strip searches of just about anyone arrested for anything — even for not paying a traffic fine — it’s hard to imagine the justices declaring mouth swabs unconstitutional.  …

But here’s a question for my fellow citizens: Why do we wait until someone’s arrested?  …

I ask you: Shouldn’t every American be obligated, from birth, to contribute their deoxyribonucleic acid to a national data bank? Wouldn’t that lead to a safer, more law-abiding nation? Isn’t this the deterrent we’ve been looking for?

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