The Utah legislature is considering a bill that requires police departments to collect a DNA sample from every person arrested for a felony. This is the logical extension of last year’s Supreme Court decision Maryland v. King, which I discussed at the time. The Court limited its decision to the collection of DNA for “serious offenses,” but it did not say what constitutes a serious offense. The Maryland law that the Court condoned limited DNA collection to those arrested for violent crimes (specifically enumerated under Maryland law), for an attempted violent crimes, or for burglary. The Utah bill (HB212) expands DNA collection to everyone arrested for any felony.
The Supreme Court justices are not known for being imprecise with language. If the Court had intended to say it was acceptable to collect the DNA of everyone accused of a felony, it could have done so. Instead it chose the undefined phrase “serious offenses.” It is a phrase vague enough to not raise initial concern—I do not remember any non-lawyers expressing concern about the decision—but allows the Court to later expand DNA collection for all arrestees. This should worry anyone concerned about civil liberties. Utah already collects the DNA of everyone convicted of felonies. The only people a change in the law would negatively affect are people who are arrested but later acquitted. This is another way the criminal justice system is eroding civil liberties of everyone, whether or not they are guilty of anything.
UPDATE: The legislature passed this bill, and it was signed by governor Gary Herbert. It went into law on May 13, 2014.
February 13, 2014 at 8:49 AM
Or what about people who are arrested and never charged with a crime? Sometimes people are arrested and booked and then never charged. This seems to put a lot of power in the hands of the government, especially in a state that prides itself on being in favor of limited government. This is definitely a slippery slope. Next it will be people arrested for any crime.
February 13, 2014 at 9:04 AM
This opens the door to pretextual arrests. An officer arrests someone, or a group of people, for the very purpose of collecting DNA. The hypothetical officer knows that he cannot convince a judge to issue a blanket warrant for DNA, but if he arrests enough people, he just might find a DNA match for a crime he’s investigating.
February 13, 2014 at 12:38 PM
Excellent point. I can think of several scenarios where collecting DNA from potential suspects without their consent becomes the de facto investigative tool. Pretty scary if you believe in civil liberties.