Supreme Court: DNA swab after arrest is legitimate search

Story highlights

  • In a 5-4 decision, the high court likens taking a DNA sample to fingerprinting an arrestee
  • In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia says the ruling establishes a "terrifying principle"
  • Civil liberties groups worry about errors by overwhelmed lab technicians
The Supreme Court has ruled criminal suspects can be subjected to a police DNA test after arrest -- before trial and conviction -- a privacy-versus-public-safety dispute that could have wide-reaching implications in the rapidly evolving technology surrounding criminal procedure.
At issue in the ruling Monday was whether taking genetic samples from someone held without a warrant in criminal custody for "a serious offense" is an unconstitutional "search."
A 5-4 majority of the court concluded it is legitimate, and upheld a state law.
"When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and they bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment," the majority wrote.
Law enforcement lauds genetic testing's potential as the "gold standard" of reliable evidence gathering, especially to solve "cold cases" involving violent offenders.
But privacy rights groups counter the state's "trust us" promise not to abuse the technology does not ease their concerns that someone's biological makeup could soon be applied for a variety of non-criminal purposes.
Twenty-six states and the federal government allow genetic swabs to be taken after a felony arrest and without a warrant.
Each has different procedures, but in all cases, only a profile is created. About 13 individual markers out of some 3 billion are isolated from a suspect's DNA. That selective information does not reveal the full genetic makeup of a person and, officials stress, nothing is shared with any other public or private party, including any medical diagnostics.