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Supreme Court: go ahead and take DNA from criminal suspects

A Supreme Court decision issued on Monday lends support to the way criminal investigation is conducted both at the federal level and in many states. Currently, a number of states and the federal government permit the pre-conviction gathering of DNA evidence from criminal suspects.

The laws vary, but they all have in common that those suspected of serious crime can be subjected to DNA extraction. Under a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued earlier this week, the practice is declared constitutional, in accord with the Fourth Amendment of the United States.

Under the Fourth Amendment, police may not conduct unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that officers are not allowed to search a criminal suspect for evidence of an unrelated crime without reasonable suspicion.

The Supreme Court justified pre-conviction DNA profiling of those suspected of serious crimes in order to identify the suspect. As Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out, though, the real reason for DNA profiling is not to identify criminal suspects, but to solve cold cases. In most cases where officers gather DNA evidence, they aren't trying to identify the suspect, but just check whether or not they can be connected to unsolved criminal cases.

The appeal on which the decision was based involved a Maryland man who was convicted of a 2003 rape after police gathered DNA evidence upon his arrest for assault charges. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that a state law that permitted DNA collection from those who are only suspected of criminal activity is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

It isn't clear yet how widely the ruling will impact criminal investigation of "serious crimes," which term was not defined by the court. 

Source: New York Times, "Justices Allow DNA Collection After an Arrest," Adam Liptak, June 3, 2013. 

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