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U.S. Opinions: Washington

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Modern-day fingerprinting

From an editorial in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

Government collection of DNA is as tantalizing to law enforcement as it is terrifying to those who see it as an unwarranted intrusion on privacy. A split Supreme Court on Monday took its stand on the side of law enforcement, finding that the government can take DNA from suspects arrested under suspicion of violent crime. The five-justice majority made the right call.

At issue was a Maryland law that requires people arrested for violent crime to give a DNA swab to authorities. The majority found that DNA can serve as the 21st-century equivalent of fingerprinting. During booking, suspects have their prints taken as a matter of course. Police can then use that information to defeat aliases that suspects might be using, to obtain information on suspects’ criminal history and even to solve cold cases. Handing over a swab should be seen as a similarly reasonable way to identify and process arrestees.

But in a spirited dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that Maryland’s law isn’t really like fingerprinting because it is specifically geared toward solving cold cases, not identifying and processing arrestees. The Fourth Amendment requires that police have reason to think that a specific individual committed a specific crime before demanding DNA.

But, as the majority pointed out, the rapid advance of DNA identification technology promises to make it as efficient a tool in the administration of criminal justice as fingerprinting has been, serving a variety of legitimate ends at many stages in the system, including identification. The justices were right to allow that process to continue to play out.

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