Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Oral Argument in Maryland v. King — Part I

Oral argument before the Supreme Court in Maryland v. King took place on Tuesday, Feb. 26.1/ Alonzo King, Jr., had been arrested in 2009, then charged and convicted of an assault. A Maryland law requires defendants charged with certain crimes to provide a DNA sample—before they are even tried. On this basis, King’s identifying DNA profile was obtained and included in a database of DNA profiles from arrestees and convicts, to be checked periodically against DNA profiles recovered from crime scenes.

King’s DNA profile played no role in the assault case. The state did not want it for that prosecution. Rather, it wanted to see if his DNA might connect him to some unsolved crime. Sure enough, it linked him to an unsolved 2003 rape of a 52-year-old woman. In the ensuing trial for that crime, the state proved that King, then 19 and wearing a mask, broke down the door, held a gun to the woman's head and sexually assaulted her. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the state’s law mandating routine DNA sampling before conviction violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches or seizures.

I had the worst seat in the house — a small wooden chair against the far wall behind the farthest row of permanent seats. That hardly mattered. From any distance,  the argument would have appeared kaleidoscopic, with patterns forming and shifting apparently at random. Nevertheless, one major theme emerged from the questions: Is the rationale for upholding Maryland’s law confined to arrestees? Several Justices clearly were concerned that upholding this law would permit states or the federal government to acquire the DNA of everyone.

The Chief Justice introduced this line of questioning earlier in the argument for the state:
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Your procedure limits the collection to certain violent offenses, right?

MS. WINFREE: It does, Mr. Chief Justice.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: But your argument would not be so limited, would it? Under your theory, there's no reason you couldn't undertake this procedure with respect to anybody pulled over for a traffic violation?

MS. WINFREE: Well, in Maryland, it's not just the fact that we have those — those violent crimes and burglaries. Actually, we don't collect DNA unless someone is physically taken into custody. Now, with respect to —

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, I understand. But there's no reason you couldn't, right? I gather it's not that hard. Police officers who give Breathalyzer tests, they can also take a Q-tip or whatever and get a DNA sample, right?

MS. WINFREE: Well, what I would say to that is that with respect to a traffic stop, this Court said in Berkheimer that a motorist has an expectation that a traffic stop is going to be relatively brief and temporary, that he or she will be given a citation and sent on their way.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, how long does it take to — to undergo the procedure? You say, ah and then —

MS. WINFREE: It doesn't take long, but what I was suggesting is that because of the nature of a traffic stop, this Court might well decide that a motorist has a reasonable expectation of privacy not to —
These answers are unsatisfying. In Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005), the Court deemed the nature of a traffic stop irrelevant to the reasonableness of a search for something unrelated to the stop. Specifically, the Court rejected the argument that walking a drug sniffing dog around a car while an officer wrote the citation “converted the citizen-police encounter from a lawful traffic stop into a drug investigation, and because the shift in purpose was not supported by any reasonable suspicion that respondent possessed narcotics, it was unlawful.” Given that “governmental conduct that only reveals the possession of contraband ‘compromises no legitimate privacy interest,’” the Court concluded that the dog-sniff was not itself a search, and the traffic offense fully justified the temporary restraint on the driver’s freedom to travel was fully justified.

Rather than “the nature of the traffic stop” creating a reasonable expectation of privacy that would make the traffic-stop DNA sampling a search, it is the nature of DNA sampling (as currently conducted) that has this effect. Justice Scalia emphasized this when he later commented:
If there's no reasonable expectation of privacy, there's no search. But here, there is a search. You have a physical intrusion. You — you pull a guy's cheek apart and stick a — a swab into his mouth. That's a search — a reasonable expectation of privacy or not. 2/
Soon afterward, Maryland’s Chief Deputy Attorney General took another stab at explaining why its justifications for the law would not subject everyone to compulsory DNA sampling:
MS. WINFREE: Well, happily we don't have to decide that one today. But what I — the cornerstone of our argument is that when an individual is taken into custody, an individual is arrested on a probable cause, on a probable cause arrest, that person by virtue of being in that class of individuals whose conduct has led the police to arrest him on — based on probable cause surrenders a substantial amount of liberty and privacy.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Deputy Solicitor General elaborated at the outset of his presentation:
MR. DREEBEN: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: Arrestees are in a unique category, they are on the gateway into the criminal justice system.    They are no longer like free citizens who are wandering around on the streets retaining full impact Fourth Amendment rights. The arrest itself substantially reduces the individual's expectation of privacy. The arrestee can be searched and sent to arrest. His property, whether or not connected with a crime, can be inventoried. When he's taken into the jail situation, he can be subjected to a visual strip search. If he's admitted to the population of the jail, he'll be given a TB test and a thorough medical screen. These are not individuals who are like free citizens, and they are not like free citizens in another significant respect. Arrestees are rarely arrested for the first time. They tend to be repeat customers in the criminal justice system. Up to 70 percent of arrestees have been previously arrested.
The trouble with this argument should be obvious. Of course, arrestees have been arrested and may be searched in ways inapplicable (thankfully) to people who not currently in police custody. But the fact that “they are not like free citizens” does not necessarily mean that the justifications for taking their DNA are not just as powerful when applied to the general population. One must go beyond diffuse talk of surrendering “a substantial amount of liberty and privacy” to adequately distinguish this group from the general population for the purpose of DNA identification testing. The argument that arrestees are different just because they have been arrested (and are likely to be re-arrested) is empty.

One thing that gives the difference claim some content is the state’s argument that DNA databases do or can provide significant information for pretrial supervision of arrestees. Much of the hour’s argument focused on Maryland’s contention that the “purpose of the statute is to enable the state to identify perpetrators of serious crimes and — and to use the information to make bail determinations for people who are validly in their custody.” Part II of this series will describe the Justices’ often skeptical questioning on this point.


1. For the same-day transcript, see

2. On its face, this comment seems to be internally inconsistent. The first sentence asserts that there can be no search without a reasonable expectation of privacy. The third says that is a search even if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. I take it that Justice Scalia means that one need not fuss with reasonable-expectation test when there is a traditional trespass to gather information. This was the position that the Justice articulated for a majority of the Court in United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012).

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