A 'reasonable' cheek swab

Supreme Court ruling on DNA brings California's more expansive law into focus



On June 3, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it's legal for law enforcement to collect DNA samples from people who are arrested — even when the individuals taken into custody are never convicted of a crime. The justices were narrowly split, and the decision immediately drew criticism from civil liberties advocates like American Civil Liberties Union, who characterized it as a blow to American's Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

Does the historic ruling carry implications for law enforcement practices in California? Not exactly. As it turns out, current state law allows police to collect DNA samples through cheek swabbing on a far more routine basis than in Maryland, where only a handful of serious offenses can trigger this kind of search. And in the Golden State, fewer protections are in place for arrestees.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling with a narrow 5-4 vote. "The majority's take was that cheek-swabbing is reasonable ... even without any suspicion of wrongdoing by the arrestee, because the intrusion is minimal, the arrestee has less of an expectation of privacy than a typical citizen, and the state has a strong interest in using DNA to identify people," explained Andrea Roth, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and founding member of a group that studied and litigated forensic DNA typing.

In contrast, Roth said, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia "was concerned that this is the first time that we've ever allowed searches of someone's body, without any type of individualized suspicion, for the purpose of general crime-solving. He thought that was a line the Constitution draws in the sand, and that the law is on the wrong side of that line."

Despite drawing a scathing critique from a conservative Supreme Court justice, Maryland's system for the collection and use of DNA is actually much narrower in scope than the law that went into effect in California in 2004, when Proposition 69 passed.

Maryland's law "only applies to a limited number of offenses, it doesn't apply at all to people who are simply arrested but not charged, and they can only make use of the sample after there's been a judicial finding of probable cause," Michael Risher, a lawyer with the Northern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told us.

"California doesn't have any of those safeguards," Risher added. "It's a different law."


When Prop. 69 was approved, California voters initially sanctioned DNA collection from people convicted of felony offenses. But on January 1, 2009, a different provision of that initiative kicked in, expanding it to allow police to collect DNA samples from "any adult person" arrested for "any felony offense," regardless of whether that person is ever charged or convicted of a crime.

When used as a form of identification, DNA samples are processed to yield a 26-number sequence that aids law enforcement in verifying suspects' identities.

Once they're collected and used to produce unique identifiers, those cotton-swabbed samples aren't destroyed; instead, they remain in the hands of a state agency. "The problem is that the state keeps your samples," Roth said. "It's not like they develop the 26-number profile and then throw the rest of the sample in the trash. So if you're in a database, state officials still have your entire DNA strand."

According to the California Department of Justice, since the start of the program, the DNA data bank had received and logged more than 2.1 million samples as of March 31. The data bank is shared with the National DNA Index System (NDIS), part of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is linked to federal records.

In its decision, the nation's highest court determined that "taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure."

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