Tuesday, June 4, 2013

At least it's not a needle

Police arrest suspect. Police take suspect to jail. Police take suspect's fingerprints when he is booked in for identification purposes. Police collect other scientific evidence for use in solving cold cases.

What's wrong with this picture?

According to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and four of his fellow justices, not a damn thing. You see, there's nothing overly intrusive about it. Just take a giant Q-tip and roll it around inside someone's mouth and you have instant DNA sample. No one is getting strapped down. Nothing is being injected in someone's body. And, best of all, now you have a DNA sample you can enter into a database to see if your new guest is implicated in any other crimes that have gone unsolved.

It is so strange, at times, to agree with Antonin Scalia. But, when it comes to Fourth Amendment issues, his goofy textualist philosophy generally works in favor of the accused. Justice Scalia wasn't concerned with the intrusiveness of the collecting of the sample. He didn't care if it was convenient. Justice Scalia had a problem with the fact that the sample would be used as evidence in investigating other crimes.

Oh, did I forget to mention the samples in question were taken without a warrant?

Yesterday the Nine in Robes decided by a vote of 5 to 4 in Maryland v. King, 569 US ___ (2013), that there was no need for the government to obtain a warrant to collect a DNA sample from someone arrested for a crime. Not convicted, mind you, just arrested.

The decision raises questions on various levels. First, since when do we equate a DNA sample to a booking fingerprint? The purpose of fingerprinting those arrested and jailed is for identification purposes. Down the road, should that person be convicted and find themselves on the wrong side of the iron bars again, that fingerprint card from the first arrest and conviction can be compared to the new card to identify those folks who have prior convictions are who are subject to enhanced sentences.

The fingerprints are also loaded into statewide and nationwide data bases that allow law enforcement agencies to compare fingerprints found at the scene of a crime to those taken of folks charged or convicted of various crimes.

The DNA evidence in this case would constitute scientific evidence that could be used against the arrestee in any other case in which there is a hit on his sample. The sample isn't being used for identification purposes, it's being used for investigative purposes. It is being obtained without the slightest showing of probable cause.

This decision, and all the other 5 to 4 decisions in matters concerning our rights under the Bill of Rights, raises questions about the reverence judges pay to the principle of stare decisis. If we are going to use these cases decided by one vote as precedent on which to base our rights, shouldn't we be concerned that in this vast democracy, a right was defined by one person who was not elected and is not accountable to the citizenry?

Furthermore, if a case is decided by but one vote, what does that tell us about the strength of the precedential power of that case? Knowing that the same facts could just have easily led to a different decision if the composition of the court was changed by one justice, should we rely upon those decisions to the same extent we rely on unanimous (or near-unanimous) decisions?

There is nothing magical about the nine who sit in Washington. They are men and women who have decided, based on nothing more than their own political beliefs, that they each know the correct method of interpreting a document written in the late 19th century - a document whose authors could never have imagined how much things would change over the course of 200 years.

Who's to say that Justice Scalia's textualism is any better than the idea that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are living documents that must change with the times? And where does the doctrine of original intent fit in? Does it really make sense to try to analogize the items of our modern society to the items at hand in 1800?


Anonymous said...

The Constitution was written in the late 18th century

Lee said...

At least we will get the right rapist and the right victim justice. This is a lot better than the wrongful convictions as now DNA can assure us of justice done accurately.