Supreme Court Blocks DNA Ruling

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Jr., has stayed a Maryland high court ruling that prohibits DNA collections from suspects charged but not yet convicted in violent crimes. The stay has been granted until at least July 25.

The appeal to the Supreme Court was made by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler after Maryland’s Court of Appeals refused to reverse its decision in Alonzo Jay King Jr. v. State of Maryland.

The case centers on Maryland legislation, which, starting in 2009, allowed police to collect DNA from suspects after they were charged with violent crimes or burglaries. Before then, police had been able to collect DNA only from convicted criminals.

Alonzo Jay King Jr. challenged the law after he was arrested in Wicomico County in April 2009 on first- and second-degree assault charges. Prosecutors used a DNA swab stemming from that case to connect him to a 2003 rape. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the rape.

But in a 5 to 2 ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals sent King’s case back to the Wicomico County Circuit Court and threw out the DNA evidence against him, saying investigators violated his Fourth Amendment rights in taking his genetic material and comparing it with old crime scene samples. The ruling was condemned by prosecutors and police chiefs, who said it would hamper detectives’ ability to solve cold cases and jeopardize the convictions of 34 robbers, burglars and rapists whose genetic samples were taken after they were charged in separate cases.

While the stay is only valid for a week, because lower state and federal courts have been divided on the issue, it is likely that the stay will be extended and the case will be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Twenty-five states and the federal government have similar laws allowing DNA collection after someone has been charged with a violent crime but before conviction, and disputes over their constitutionality have erupted across the country. The main constitutional argument in the case is whether people charged with violent crimes have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their DNA that is higher than that of those who have been convicted.

In their decision that DNA collection after charging but before conviction was unconstitutional, the Maryland Court of Appeals said that its “analysis is influenced by the precept that the government must overcome a presumption that warrantless, suspicionless searches are per se unreasonable….The state bears the burden of overcoming the arrestee’s presumption of innocence and his expectation to be free from biological searches….”

Alex Brown