The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether police can take DNA samples from criminal suspects following their arrest, a case based on Maryland law with potentially national implications for the use of a popular investigative tool.
Justices will weigh a challenge to the state's law by Alonzo King, who was convicted of a 2003 rape on Maryland's Eastern Shore with the assistance of genetic material obtained following his arrest three years ago on an unrelated assault charge.
King moved to suppress the use of the DNA on Fourth Amendment grounds, but was ultimately convicted of the rape offense.
Federal law in 1994 created a national database in which local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies could compare and share information on DNA matches from convicted felons. But courts have been at odds on just when such samples can be collected and the information distributed.
A divided Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with King, saying suspects under arrest enjoy a higher level of privacy than a convicted felon. This, the court said, outweighed the state's law enforcement interests.
The appeals court also said that obtaining King's DNA immediately after arrest was not necessary in identifying him and that the process was more personally invasive than standard fingerprinting.
State officials asked the Supreme Court to intervene, saying the state court ruling "resulted in the loss of a valuable crime-fighting tool." They said that from a law enforcement and forensic perspective, there is no difference between fingerprinting and collecting "biometric information."
The Supreme Court allowed the Maryland law to remain in effect in July while appeals from the state were filed, and Chief Justice John Roberts signaled at the time his tentative support for the measure.
"Collecting DNA from individuals arrested for violent felonies provides a valuable tool for investigating unsolved crimes and thereby helping to remove violent offenders from the general population," Roberts wrote.
"Crimes for which DNA evidence is implicated tend to be serious, and serious crimes cause serious injuries. That Maryland may not employ a duly enacted statute to help prevent these injuries constitutes irreparable harm."
Roberts said at the time there was a "fair prospect" the Supreme Court would ultimately find in favor of the state on the search and seizure questions.
Roberts said the state appeals decision would resonate beyond Maryland because DNA samples taken on the state level "may otherwise be eligible" for the FBI's database. "The decision," Roberts said "renders the database less effective for other states and the federal government."
The Maryland law is set to expire at the end of 2013. A Supreme Court ruling is expected by June.
The case is Maryland v. King (12-207)