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Monday, September 17, 2012

State's DNA Collection Laws Face Appellate Court Review

Posted By on Mon, Sep 17, 2012 at 2:23 PM

Who should be subject to police DNA testing?
  • Who should be subject to police DNA testing?

Last week, opening arguments began in the murder trial of William Payne. Prosecutors have charged Payne with killing 41-year-old Nikolaus Crumbley in 1983. The trial will spotlight the advancements of DNA technology.


Payne was arrested earlier this year, after the state's Department of Justice matched DNA from semen found at the 1983 murder scene with Payne's DNA sample from an unrelated 1986 assault conviction.

Interestingly, while law enforcement has had Payne's DNA sample for more than 20 years, only recently has DNA technology matched him to the 1983 murder sample.

As the Payne case shows, DNA collection has become an increasingly valuable asset in investigating crimes -- for both cracking cold cases and exonerating the wrongly convicted. It is fitting then, that as that trial proceeds, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will be contemplating the constitutionality of the state's DNA collection laws. The main question: Should police be allowed to take DNA samples only from people convicted of felonies?

In 2004, 62 percent of California voters passed Proposition 69, which authorized police to take DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony charge. More than half the states follow similar protocols.

This Wednesday, though, the American Civil Liberties Union will argue before the court that the policy is an unconstitutional infringement into personal privacy, and that only convicted felony offenders should be subject to genetic testing.

The difference between the two options -- convicted versus arrested -- is not negligible. The Associated Press reported that "California law enforcement officials are collecting more than 11,000 samples a month"-- which adds up to more than 132,000 a year. And according to ACLU data, more than 50,000 Californians are arrested but not convicted for a felony every year. Which means that the Ninth Circuit's decision will likely apply to more than one-third of the state's annual collection total.

It's one of America's oldest policy debates. Oftentimes, balancing personal liberty with collective security is a zero-sum game.

The Ninth Circuit already approved the law in the years since it passed, ruling that DNA samples simply fill the same role fingerprinting has for decades. However, as the AP explained, "underscoring the importance of the debate, a majority of the court's 24 judges voted to reconsider that divided ruling of three-judge panel. The matter now goes before a special "en banc" court of 11 judges."

In April, Maryland's court of appeals rules that the state's DNA collection laws (which are similar to California's) violated the constitution's protections against unwarranted search and seizures. Three months later, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the nation's highest court might hear the case.

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Albert Samaha

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