My natural instincts were to disapprove of the Supreme Court decision allowing police to collect DNA evidence at every arrest. But when I thought about it more, I saw that taking DNA is no different from taking fingerprints or mug shots.
Fingerprints and photographs are routinely taken at every arrest at the discretion of the police. Many if not all end up in a national database, which can be checked when the police are investigating future crimes. The information contained in both fingerprints and photographs could, and sometimes is abused. A police officer could plant a fingerprint or encourage a witness to select one photo in an array of suspects. The fingerprints could be sold to private security or investigative firms.
So what’s the difference between DNA and these more traditional forms of identification?
Maryland v. King may mark the first time that I have ever been on the same side as Clarence Thomas in any Supreme Court decision that wasn’t unanimous (and therefore devoid of controversy).
Civil rights activists are concerned that a DNA swab represents an invasion of privacy, which was outlawed by the Fourth Amendment. It seems no less an invasion of privacy than getting a scan checked at an airport or having your luggage checked. Everyone gets scanned and searched at the airport. The DNA check—like fingerprinting—only occurs to people who are arrested. And in most of the 28 states allowing DNA to be swabbed at arrest, it’s not for every arrest—it’s only in the case of crimes for which DNA can provide special knowledge, such as rape.
There is no doubt that sooner or later some authority is going to misuse DNA evidence. It’s this misuse and the general abuse of police power about which we should be concerned. Since 9/11, Congress has passed a series of laws that have eroded our civil rights and invaded our privacy, such as allowing government to search the books we checked from libraries or to place warrantless wire taps. Then there are the drone kills.
It should be against the law to snoop into our reading habits. And it should be against the law to arrest people merely for congregating at a street corner. New York City’s stop-and-frisk is a disgrace to this bastion of liberalism. Racial profiling is always wrong. Planting evidence or keeping exculpatory evidence from the defense—wrong. Beating a confession out of a prisoner—wrong. False arrest—wrong.
But once someone is in the system, under arrest and turning a grim face to the camera, I see nothing wrong with taking a swab from his or her cheek.
What’s so ironic about the objections being raised against this decision is that the same people tend to support the rights of defendants and prisoners. What DNA is mostly known for is exonerating people from crimes they did not commit.
Everything costs time and/or money. Most of the people speaking against this decision are getting paid by their respective organizations. To the degree they waste time on bemoaning what many call the 21st-century equivalent of fingerprinting, they are unable to spend time fighting the real abuses of civil liberties and personal privacy that take place every day in the United States, some sanctioned by ill-advised laws. I’m not saying the ACLU and others aren’t fighting these real abuses. What I’m saying is they should do more of that and forget about DNA testing at arrests for violent crimes.