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Supreme Court approves practice of pre-conviction DNA profiling

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that could impact the way states conduct criminal investigations. The decision, which arose from an appeal of a rape conviction made possible by the DNA profiling of a Maryland man arrested for assault in 2009, involved the issue of whether police may take DNA samples from criminal suspects.

The court came down with a vote of yes: police officers may conduct pre-conviction DNA profiling on criminal suspects for the purpose of identifying the suspect in custody. The dissent in the case, led by conservative justice Antonin Scalia, remarked that the court’s decision in the case was disingenuous, as it is well known that real reason police DNA profile criminal suspects is to see whether they have been involved in any unsolved cases.

Under the Fourth Amendment, police are prohibited from conducting unreasonable searches of criminal suspects. This is an important issue in cases involving drug charges. One implication of this prohibition is that police may not search criminal suspects for evidence of criminal activity without having reasonable suspicion to do so. In practice, this means that police must be able to reasonably articulate why they believe an individual was involved in criminal activity before conducting a search.

The court specified that pre-conviction DNA profiling was justified only for suspects arrested in connection with “serious” offenses. The court did not elaborate on what constitutes a serious offense–whether that precludes DNA profiling for certain misdemeanor offenses or not. That remains to be seen.

At present, 28 states and the federal government have the practice of pre-conviction DNA profiling. Because the ruling didn’t spell out the particulars of which offenses the practice was permitted for, there will likely have to be further clarification in the lower courts on the issue.

Source: The New York Times, “Justices Allow DNA Collection After an Arrest,” Adam Liptak, June 3, 2013.

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