Maryland v. King: Supreme Court Rules That Warrantless DNA Swabs of Arrestees Are A-OK


[Originally published before the ruling; text and headline updated to reflect it. – Ed.]

The Supreme Court is considering the case Maryland v. King (thanks to Jennifer Wagner at Genomics Law Report for an excellent and detailed analysis), which turns on whether law enforcement needs a warrant to take the DNA of someone arrested and charged with, but not yet convicted of a crime. Maryland AG Douglas Gansler has argued to NPR that the privacy intrusion involved is negligible:

“They’re presumed innocent when they’re handcuffed; they’re presumed innocent when they’re strip-searched; and they’re presumed innocent when they’re sitting in jail awaiting trial,” he observes. “Those are far greater invasions of privacy than touching a Q-tip to the inside of your cheek for a second.”

The cheek swab taken from Mr. King came up with a hit for a six-year-old rape case. King was convicted of that charge, and is serving life in prison. King’s attorney, Kannon Shanmugam, argues that the intrusiveness of the search comes from the fact that the search was capable of disclosing a wide array of deeply personal information, and was taken at a time when his client had not been charged with any crime:

“The default rule under the Fourth Amendment is that when a search takes place, it has to be supported either by a warrant issued by a magistrate or by some level of individualized suspicion”

In this case, two very different conceptions of the Fourth Amendment collide. It was once the case that the physical intrusiveness of a search more or less tracked with the amount of information about the arrestee that the search would disclose. Fourth Amendment jurisprudence built up a careful set of rules regarding stops, patdowns and strip-searches, each of which would disclose more than the last and received correspondingly more careful scrutiny.

That relationship is now breaking down. People with smartphones carry their whole lives in a readily searchable object in their pocket, and searching that object is, in all ways but the physical, more intrusive than a strip search. Here, Gansler argues that because a cheek swab is easily taken and doesn’t even properly penetrate the body, it deserves less Fourth Amendment protection; Shanmugam argues that because the cheek swab can disclose information on which his client’s freedom may turn, it deserves the highest Constitutional protection. Continue reading Maryland v. King: Supreme Court Rules That Warrantless DNA Swabs of Arrestees Are A-OK