BERLIN — The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard testimony on a landmark Maryland DNA testing law rooted in a Lower Shore rape dating back to 2003 and although no opinion has yet been rendered, at least one justice called the case the most important the high court has heard in decades.
In July 2010, Alonzo Jay King, Jr., now 29, was found guilty of first-degree rape after he broke down the door of a residence in Salisbury armed with a gun and wearing a mask over his face and sexually assaulted a 52-year-old female victim. In September 2010, King was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but quickly appealed the conviction based on an alleged DNA sample collection that connected him to the 2003 rape in Salisbury.
In 2009, King was arrested after photographic and fingerprint evidence identified him as a suspect in an unrelated assault case. Under Maryland’s relatively new law, a DNA sample was taken and entered into the state DNA database and that DNA sample ultimately connected King to the unsolved 2003 rape case. King appealed his conviction in the rape case, arguing the DNA sample collection violated his constitutional right against unreasonable searches.
In April, the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed the DNA sample taken from King following his assault arrest in 2009 and used to gain a conviction in the 2003 rape case was unconstitutional and remanded King’s case back to Wicomico County Circuit Court for a new trial. Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Maryland Court of Appeals decision on DNA testing.
On Tuesday, the nation’s highest court heard testimony in a thorough review of the use of DNA for possible matches to other crimes under King v. Maryland, which could have broad implications in Maryland and across the country.
Maryland Chief Deputy Attorney General Katherine Winfree began Tuesday’s hearing with some pertinent statistics from Maryland only to illustrate DNA collection from arrestees as an important law enforcement tool. Winfree told the Supreme Court justices that since 2009 when Maryland began to collect DNA samples from arrestees charged with violent crimes and burglary, there have been 225 matches, 75 prosecutions and 42 convictions including King.
“I think it does point out, in fact, that the statute is working, and in the state’s view, the act is constitutional,” she said. “The purpose of the statute is to enable the state to identify the perpetrators of serious crimes and to use the information to make bail determinations for people who are validly in their custody.”
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito said after hearing Winfree’s initial testimony Maryland v. King was a groundbreaking case that high court needed to consider its Fourth Amendment implications.
“With the thrust of a lot of what we have been presented with in the briefs and what we’ve heard this morning, I think this is perhaps the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades,” said Alito.
For his part, King’s attorney Kannon Shanmugan argued the DNA test that connected his client to the 2003 rape in Salisbury was violated Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and was unconstitutional.
“Maryland searched my client without a warrant in order to investigate crimes for which there was no suspicion,” said Shanmugam. “It is settled law that warrantless, suspicionless searches are presumptively unconstitutional.”
Throughout the proceedings, the argument went back and forth over an individual’s expectation of privacy when he or she is arrested. Chief Justice John Roberts said there are two essential interests at stake.
“One is, we want to solve unsolved crimes and the other is, we have someone in our custody and we want to be sure, before he is released back into the community, that he isn’t a person who has committed five violent crimes before that.”
Winfree reiterated Maryland’s success in using DNA tests to connect suspects arrested on violent crimes and certain other felonies as validation for the DNA tests.
“The cornerstone of our argument is that when an individual is taken into custody, an individual is arrested on probable cause, that person by virtue of being in a class of individuals whose conduct has led the police to arrest him on probable cause surrenders a substantial amount of liberty and privacy,” she said.
While they didn’t issue an opinion following the hearing, the justices did leave certain hints to how they were leaning in the landmark case. For instance, Justice Elena Kagan likened the post-arrest DNA test to an unfounded search of a suspect’s residence without probable cause.
“Just because you’ve been arrested for something, the state doesn’t have the right to go search your house for evidence of unrelated crimes, isn’t that correct?” said Kagan. “Just because you’ve been arrested doesn’t mean that you lose the privacy expectations and things you have that aren’t related to the offense that you’ve been arrested for.”