Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 4, 2013

DNA: The Tilted Supreme Court

By David K. Shipler

             Four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that people who proclaim their innocence have no constitutional right after their convictions to demand that DNA tests be done on the evidence in their cases, although plenty of guilty verdicts for rape and murder have been thrown out because mismatches have later been discovered. Yesterday, the Court ruled 5-4 that people arrested for “serious” crimes have no constitutional right to withhold their DNA from the police, even though the DNA is used for fishing expeditions into unsolved crimes unrelated to the reasons for the arrests.
Together, the two rulings create a tilted playing field in the criminal justice system: The individual is compelled, but the state is not. Anyone taken into custody (and presumed innocent) is compelled to give up his DNA at the outset but after conviction cannot compel prosecutors to give up the DNA found in the semen, blood, or other tissue from the crime scene.
The prosecutors’ obligations to test evidence for DNA rest in a variety of state laws, the Court decided in 2009, not in the Constitution’s guarantee of due process or the defendant’s right to summon “witnesses in his favor,” as the Sixth Amendment provides. The state laws are a mixed bag, and not always much protection; some deny convicts’ right to DNA if they confessed, although about one-quarter of the convictions reversed on the basis of DNA evidence involve false confessions, the Innocence Project reports.
The odd result is that the Court finds DNA the quintessential identifier in one ruling and a dispensable piece of evidence in the other. It is critical when it serves the state and merely optional when it serves the individual. This hypocrisy is mirrored by many prosecutors across the country who hail the precision of genetic coding to discover the criminal, yet resist its use to exonerate the wrongly convicted.
The inconsistency, the failure to bolster the system’s truth-seeking purpose, is reflected by the most colorful Justice, Antonin Scalia, who has been on both sides of the question. He joined the majority in the 2009 decision denying convicts the right to test crime-scene evidence, but in the latest case, Maryland v. King, he blustered sardonically in an entertaining dissent against the majority’s decision to uphold the Maryland law—which had been struck down by the state’s Supreme Court—requiring DNA to be taken without a warrant after an arrest. He warned of sweeping consequences, and he may be right.
Courts usually proceed incrementally, each decision building on precedent, and with DNA collection now approved for those arrested and presumed innocent, it will be a smaller step to wider use, as Scalia noted. DNA is a tool of infallible identification, after all. Why not require it for a driver’s license, for passing through airport security, for enrolling in public school? If lab techniques improve to speed up processing and reduce cost, a national database containing everyone’s DNA will someday be conceivable, and probably less constitutionally dubious than before this ruling. 
That cuts a chunk out of the Fourth Amendment’s provision for “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Taking a swab from inside a person’s cheek is a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, both sides agreed, and the majority found it reasonable. The trouble is, under judicial precedent a search normally requires individualized suspicion to a degree that depends on the circumstances—to search your home, for example, requires probable cause and a warrant signed by a judge; to frisk you without a warrant as you walk down the street requires a police officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that you are armed.
The Fourth Amendment has been chipped away as more and more suspicionless searches have been allowed by the Court, often with Scalia’s acquiescence: He voted for random drug tests of children in school choirs and other extra-curricular activities, for instance. The erosion has been helped along by the supposedly liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who puzzled some commentators by joining with the majority on taking DNA after arrests. But nobody should be confused. Breyer has never been a big defender of the Fourth Amendment. He also endorsed suspicionless drug testing of schoolchildren, which prompted the plaintiff who lost, Lindsay Earls, to challenge him politely several years later. When Breyer visited Dartmouth, where she was then a junior, she asked whether justices ever recognized that they’d made a mistake. Yes, Breyer answered, “but not in your case.”
The Fourth Amendment was written as a bulwark, but it has proved a fragile restraint in an age of easy digital surveillance, biometric advances, and sweeping concerns about crime and terrorism. “I don’t think that there’s much left of the Fourth Amendment in criminal law,” Federal District Judge Paul L. Friedman told me several years ago—a startling statement from a respected judge who presides over drug and gun trials.
So behind this fading shield, DNA is a double-edged sword, useful to prosecutors and defendants alike—provided they can both wield it equally. In the small fraction of crimes where DNA is available, it is a marvelous tool for getting to the truth and reducing errors, for identifying the rapist and murderer, and for freeing the innocent.
But that won’t work if the DNA database contains evidence from only unsolved crimes. If we’re going to check all arrestees’ DNA, we also need a database of evidence from crimes we think we’ve solved, so that erroneous convictions can be uncovered. The law enforcement officials celebrating yesterday’s ruling would earn some integrity by pledging to establish such a resource. 


  1. Communities and jurisdicitions at all levels across this country share in common, I believe, a significant strain on their strained and diminishing financial resources from maintenance of aging penal facilities, decades of overcrowding, and the weight of handling ever increasing substance abuse cases. It surprises me that there is not an across the board embracing by the public, the penal institutions, and the legal and judicial communities of DNA testing to identify and release erroneous convictions. This would accomplish reduction of the number of inmates, lower costs, achieve justice, and strengthen the Fourth Amendment in the process.

    1. You may good sense, including use of a fiscal rationale that is undeniable, Hence, unfortunately, there is no way your ideas can become law.

  2. I find one of the most evil of all positions that seemingly "decent" people hold is the idea that once they've convicted someone, all is well - even if the conviction is false! This is one of the most hideous - and, as I say, outright EVIL acts - that exists in the American system of so-called justice.
    It ain't justice if the person incarcerated ain't guilty!!! You'd think this would be obvious to decent people - and it probably IS - to ACTUALLY DECENT people - but apparently, many people who go into law enforcement and the justice system have a sick, childish, twisted sense of justice - that doesn't involve any kind of real, ACTUAL justice. It's truly sickening!
    Thank you for addressing this issue!!!