In a speech Friday, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said he would have voted with the majority in the high court’s decision this month allowing police officers to collect DNA evidence from arrested suspects. Stevens was the keynote at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy's national convention.
The case, Maryland v. King, was decided 5-4 with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the majority. The collection of DNA did not violate the Fourth Amendment and is akin to police taking a fingerprint and photographing a suspect, the majority concluded in the June 3 opinion.
Alonzo King was arrested in 2009 on assault charges. During the time he was processed for booking, the authorities took a cheek swab to collect DNA. The evidence tied King to an unsolved rape from 2003 for which he was subsequently convicted. The Maryland Court of Appeals dismissed the conviction on the ground that it was unconstitutional to collect DNA evidence from a felony arrestee.
"It seems to me that taking a DNA sample—or a fingerprint sample—involves a far lesser intrusion on an ordinary person's privacy than a search that allows an officer to rummage through private papers," Steven said. "Second, the proven accuracy of DNA samples in both establishing guilt and exonerating the innocent who have been mistakenly convicted or accused, favors greater rather than lesser use of DNA evidence. Rules that unnecessarily preclude the use of such evidence may impede the search for truth without providing any meaningful protection for privacy interests."
Ultimately though, Stevens said it’s in the public's best interest to create a DNA database with "individuals who are reasonably believed to have been engaged in significant criminal behavior."
Stevens argued that the database and collection of DNA did not apply "indiscriminately to the entire population, but only those for whom there was probable cause to justify their arrest for a violent crime." Stevens' fourth justification in support of a DNA database was that it would act as a deterrent to would-be rapists.
"The deterrent value of increasing punishment for crimes is always qualified by the criminal's confidence in his ability to avoid detection," Stevens said.
Arguably his most controversial statement of the entire speech came when he argued that "more complete and more accurate databases may be useful, not only for the purpose of solving crimes, but also for the purpose, for example, of identifying persons who should not be permitted to purchase handguns."
The line elicited sporadic applause. Stevens speech also falls on the six-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Conn.
Photo by The National Law Journal's Diego M. Radzinschi.