American criminal justice entered a new era when the U.S. Supreme Court decided recently that law enforcement could take DNA samples from arrestees. However, complex consequences await communities of color already reeling from police abuse of stop and frisk practices.
It’s not simply about DNA evidence being a better way to catch and convict criminals. In a post-decision statement, Justice Samuel Alito said the case in question (Maryland v. King) is the “most important criminal procedure case the Supreme Court has heard in decades.” This 5-4 decision had conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in heated opposition to taking DNA from arrestees.
Alonzo King was arrested in Wicomico County, Maryland, in 2009, for menacing with a shotgun. He was fingerprinted and a cotton swab, like a Q-Tip, was used to take saliva and cells containing DNA from inside of his mouth. DNA contains identifying medical information, genetic material, and hereditary traits.
King’s DNA matched the DNA taken from a rape victim in 2003. With that evidence, King was convicted of rape and sentenced to life. He argued, on appeal, that without this 2009 DNA evidence he would not have been convicted.
Justice Scalia wrote of a possible national DNA database where all people will be listed, not just arrestees, and convicted criminals. DNA brought justice to that rape victim. However, this Court’s decision allows DNA from today’s arrestees to be taken to solve past crimes.
DNA was once only taken from convicted persons. Now, King’s depraved act means millions of innocent arrestees, those who have been released, or tried and found not guilty, will be added to State and Federal DNA databases.
DNA can improve the criminal justice system and police investigative practices, says the Court. However, social justice advocates fear motivation to fill DNA databases could also heighten racial profiling practices leading to stop, frisk, and swab.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court.