Maryland v. King (DNA Case)

Supreme Court

What happened?

  • In 2009, Alonzo King was arrested and charged with 1st and 2nd degree assault.  As part of a routing booking, his DNA sample was taken by cheek swab.  When the sample was entered into the database it matched DNA taken from an unsolved rape case in 2003.  King was then tried and convicted of the rape.  The Maryland Ct. of Appeals overturned the conviction on the grounds that the DNA taken in 2009 was an unlawful seizure of evidence because using a cheek swab was an “unreasonable search” under the 4th Amendment.

How did the Supreme Court rule?

  • Reversed.  The cheek swab is a reasonable search, King’s conviction stands.
  • Justice Kennedy wrote that when a person is arrested and brought to the station under probable cause, taking a cheek swab of DNA is reasonable under the 4th Amendment, just like fingerprinting and photographing.
  • No warrant is needed where “the arrestee is already in valid police custody for a serious offense supported by probable cause.”  Reasonableness is the key.

What did the dissent say?

  • Justice Scalia asserts that the 4th Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime.
  • He goes back to the drafting of the Constitution to argue that a search is “unreasonable” if it is for something (in this case – identification) other than the crime for which one is charged.
  • “Because of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”

Why is it important?

  • It created a new exception to the 4th Amendment.  Taking DNA samples of arrestees for identification purposes without a warrant is now acceptable and a “reasonable” search
    • It essentially allows law enforcement searches for crimes for which one is not under suspicion

In oral arguments, Justice Alito said that this is perhaps the most important criminal law case in decades.   Also important to note that the 5-4 decision was not the typical liberal-conservative split, Justice Breyer sided with the “conservatives” while Justice Scalia sided with the “liberals

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