Police departments across Maryland were ordered to stop collecting DNA from suspects of certain crimes last week, the result of a ruling in the state’s highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals.
The ban applies to cases involving attempted or committed violent crimes and burglaries, which voids part of the amendments made in 2008 to the Maryland DNA Collection Act. That law previously allowed suspects, not just convicted criminals, to have their DNA taken and saved in a database for use in later crimes.
“What the police departments were doing was taking this DNA and stockpiling it when there’s no probable cause for the extraction of the DNA. That is highly unconstitutional in terms of individual rights and illegal search and seizure,” said Baltimore attorney, A. Dwight Petit, who’s been practicing general law since 1973.
“In dealing with a very, very conservative Supreme Court, it is good to see that our state court is adhering to some of the Constitutional protections which we as citizens deserve. It was a very Constitutional ruling.”
The ban stems from the Alonzo Jay King Jr. v. State of Maryland case, which highlighted fourth amendment rights against illegal search and seizures. King’s DNA was taken from him in a 2009 assault arrest. That DNA became key in connecting King to a 2003 rape, a connection he says would never have been made had his DNA not been taken before he was convicted of the 2009 assault.
Though the evidence will be harder to obtain, it will still be available to investigators after the proper procedures have been followed.
“The court says you can still get the DNA, provided you take your facts to a neutral and detached magistrate, i.e. a judge, and get a warrant. In order to get a warrant you’re going to have to persuade the judge that this DNA is evidence of a certain crime,” said University of Baltimore, School of Law Professor, Byron Warnken.
Police departments are not in complete agreement with the ruling, but are adhering to the order, while Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has already requested a stay of the decision.
“The court’s decision thereby undermines important public safety objectives,” said Gansler in his motion submitted May 1, asking the Maryland Court of Appeals to reconsider the decision before the Supreme Court is petitioned.
“The 2008 amendments have bolstered law enforcement efforts and have led to the apprehension of violent criminals who committed crimes that might otherwise have gone unsolved.”
Gansler also said that while the 2008 amendments could bring an end to nearly 190 unsolved cases, the DNA evidence collected also helps exonerate prisoners wrongly accused.
Whatever the effects of the reversal, Maryland State
Police say their main focus is keeping citizens out of harm’s way.
“We’re still able to collect upon conviction, what’s been halted is collection upon arrest,” said Elena Russo, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Police Department.
“Our job is public safety and DNA collection is a tool. The effects are still to be determined,” said Russo, when asked if the ruling will help or hurt officials pursuing justice in the future.