Supreme Court decision upholds TN law on DNA swab by police

Supreme Court decision upholds TN law on DNA swab by police (Image 1)

In a split decision, an U.S. Supreme Court ruling will allow police to legally take DNA from people they arrest without a warrant or a conviction.

The decision upholds Tennessee state law that requires local law enforcement to collect DNA samples from accused violent offenders immediately after arrests.

On Monday, a five-justice majority found DNA swabs to be a legitimate police booking procedure (Maryland v. King).

The ruling essentially equates a cheek swab with fingerprinting, by allowing DNA samples to be taken from individuals arrested for various crimes during police booking procedures, before being proven guilty or not guilty and without a warrant.

That sample can then be entered into and compared to a national database.

All 50 states and the federal government currently take DNA cheek swabs after a conviction. At least 28 states, including Tennessee, and the federal government currently take swabs after arrests.

Since 2009, Tennessee state law has required DNA testing of suspects arrested for specific violent crimes.

In Tennessee, violent crimes include murder, aggravated assault, sexual battery and 14 other offenses.

“When you're being booked in on a certain charge, it has a certain code, then it automatically triggers you to then make sure you get the swab from that offender,” said Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall.

Sheriff Hall and his office handle the booking process for arrests made by Metro Nashville Police Department.

DCSO obtains cheek swabs, as well as medical screenings, photographs/mugshots, fingerprints, and criminal history searches for accused violent offenders arrested and booked into the Metro jail.

Of the 45,000 people booked into the Metro jail each year, roughly six percent must undergo a DNA cheek swab.

Last month, DCSO collected 231 DNA samples.

“Fingerprints, years and years and years ago, weren't taken,” Hall said. “And now they're taken, of course, on everyone, (along with) photographs. It's just kind of a generation that we're in now with technology.”

The technology requires more work.

Cheek swabs collected by the sheriff's office are processed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab and then entered into a national database.

Law enforcement agencies across the country have argued the samples could help convict or exonerate crime suspects.

“I think it's important to use it for both, and it's just a tool to help us get our job done,” said Hall.

Monday's decision by the high court was not without criticism.

The four dissenting justices argued that the ruling allows a major change in police powers.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a sharply-worded dissent warning of DNA collection and filing from a person that has only been arrested and not convicted.

The American Civil Liberties Union also spoke out against the ruling.

“Today's decision creates a gaping new exception to the Fourth Amendment (regarding search and seizure),” ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said in a written statement Monday.

Michael Risher, an ACLU staff attorney and blogger, called it “a serious blow to genetic privacy.”

Risher also attacked the resourcefulness of collecting DNA samples.

“It just wastes money and lab resources that could better be used to test the huge backlog of crime-scene samples that are sitting in evidence lockers and crime labs around the nation,” he said.

Hall added that someone cannot be booked into without having their fingerprints to that charge and he believes DNA is just another step in that direction.

While the U.S. Supreme Court decision won't restrict current procedures locally or statewide, it could expand them in the coming years.

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