Supreme Court Reverses Local DNA Case

BERLIN — A divided U.S. Supreme Court this week narrowly voted to reverse a Maryland Court of Appeals decision on a landmark case rooted in a Lower Shore rape dating back a decade.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reverse an earlier decision by the state’s highest court that the DNA sample collected from a Salisbury man in 2009 and later used to connect him to a brutal unsolved rape in 2003 was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. Maryland Court of Appeals had ruled the DNA sample taken from Alonzo Jay King, Jr., now 29, of Salisbury, following his arrest on an assault charge 2009 was unconstitutional and remanded King’s case back to Wicomico County Circuit Court for a new trial.

However, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Maryland Court of Appeals decision on the DNA testing case. The U.S. Supreme Court heard testimony on the case this spring and on Monday voted 5-4 to reverse the Maryland appeals court decision, essentially allowing law enforcement officers across the state to continue collecting DNA samples from suspects arrested for violent crimes. Gansler applauded the high court’s narrow vote this week.

“This is a resounding victory for both law enforcement and civil libertarians,” he said. “This decision will help us solve cases and take criminals off the street. We were confident all along the Court would agree that taking a DNA swab is no more invasive than taking someone’s fingerprints and that DNA is an important tool on both identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent.”

In 2009, King was arrested after 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 an unsolved 2003 rape case.

In July 2010, King was found guilty of first-degree rape for a 2003 incident during which 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. King was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but quickly appealed his conviction in the rape case, arguing the DNA sample collection violated his constitutional right against unreasonable searches.

In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a simple DNA cheek swab of a suspected violent criminal was no more intrusive then the time-honored fingerprinting procedure and likely for more effective.

“DNA identification is an advanced technique superior to fingerprinting in many ways, so much so that to insist on fingerprints as the norm would make little sense to either the forensic expert or the lay person,” he wrote in the majority opinion. “The additional intrusion upon the arrestee’s privacy beyond that associated with fingerprinting is not significant and DNA is a markedly more accurate form of identifying arrestees.”

For those reasons, the Maryland Court’s decision in the King case should be reversed and DNA samples should be allowed for arrestees charged with certain violent crimes, the opinion read.

“Upon these considerations, the Court concludes that DNA identification of arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of the routine booking procedure,” the majority opinion reads. “When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and they bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking an analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

However, the dissenting opinion penned by Justice Antonin Scalia suggests DNA collection from a suspected violent and used to connect the suspect to an unsolved crime is paramount to a Fourth Amendment rights violation.

“The Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence,” Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion reads. “That prohibition is categorical and without exception. It lies at the very heart of the Fourth Amendment. Whenever this court has allowed a suspicionless search, it has insisted upon a justifying motive apart from the investigation of crime.”

Scalia’s dissenting opinion continued, “Today’s judgment will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes,” the dissenting opinion reads. “Then again, so would the taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane, applies for a driver’s license or attends public school. Perhaps the construction of such a genetic panopticon is wise, but I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.”