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National Crime Victim Law Institute

Maryland v. King, 133 S. Ct. 1958 (2013).

July 03, 2013

Defendant was arrested for menacing a group of people with a shotgun, and law enforcement collected his DNA using a buccal swab from the inside of his mouth pursuant to the Maryland DNA Collection Act (DNA Act) that authorizes collection of DNA from individuals arrested for certain felonies.  Law enforcement entered defendant’s DNA profile into the Maryland DNA database, and his DNA profile matched a sample collected in an unsolved rape committed six years earlier.  The state indicted defendant on the rape charges, and he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison without parole.  Defendant appealed his rape conviction on the basis that the DNA Act violated the Fourth Amendment and that the cheek swab constituted an unreasonable search and seizure.  In a divided opinion, the Maryland Court of Appeals—the state’s highest court—agreed with defendant and found that the collection of DNA from an arrestee is unconstitutional as an unreasonable search of the person.  The state petitioned for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.  The Court, in a 5 to 4 opinion, reversed the Maryland Court of Appeals’ judgment.  The Court recognized that it was undisputed that swabbing a person’s cheek to obtain DNA constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.  In determining whether the search was reasonable, the Court focused on the state’s purpose for the search and whether it fell under the category of searches that do not require an individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.  The Court concluded that the search was based on law enforcement’s need to identify the person and possessions they take into custody, equating the function of the DNA collection to that of fingerprinting, just different in form.  The Court described several reasons law enforcement might need to identify an arrestee, such as ensuring that the arrestee’s custody does not create a risk for facility staff and determining if defendant is going to be a danger to the public if released pending trial.  The Court concluded that the government had a legitimate interest in knowing for an absolute certainty the identity of the person arrested.  The Court then compared this “substantial governmental interest” to the minimal intrusion of an individual’s body required to obtain a DNA sample.  In addition to minimal intrusion, the Court reasoned that an individual who is detained pretrial has a reduced expectation of privacy.  The Court further noted that the type of DNA collected does not reveal any genetic traits or other information, only the person’s identity, thus removing other privacy concerns.  Finally, the Court pointed to statutory protections that limit the use of the DNA to that of identification only.  For these reasons the Court concluded that Maryland’s collection of DNA from arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of a routine booking procedure.