Another attack on the 4th Amendment

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that it is constitutional for police officers to secure the DNA of suspects arrested in connection with an investigation of a “serious” crime. The real purpose of such DNA collection is to use the DNA to determine whether the arrestee might be tied to previous crimes. This is a horrible decision and is seriously weakened by the 5-4 split. The dissenting opinion was authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, and he is quite clear about the result.

The Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence. That prohibition is categorical and without exception; it lies at the very heart of the Fourth Amendment. Whenever this Court has allowed a suspicionless search, it has insisted upon a justifying motive apart from the investigation of crime.

It is obvious that no such noninvestigative motive exists in this case. The Court’s assertion that DNA is being taken, not to solve crimes, but to identify those in the State’s custody, taxes the credulity of the credulous. And the Court’s comparison of Maryland’s DNA searches to other techniques, such as fingerprinting, can seem apt only to those who know no more than today’s opinion has chosen to tell them about how those DNA searches actually work.

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If identifying someone means finding out what unsolved crimes he has committed, then identification is indistinguishable from the ordinary law enforcement aims that have never been thought to justify a suspicionless search. Searching every lawfully stopped car, for example, might turn up information about unsolved crimes the driver had committed, but no one would say that such a search was aimed at “identifying” him, and no court would hold such a search lawful.

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Today’s judgment will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes; then again, so would the taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane (surely the Transportation Security Administration needs to know the “identity” of the flying public), applies for a driver’s license, or attends a public school. Perhaps the construction of such a genetic panopticon is wise. But I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.

Justice Scalia was joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Kagan.