Friday, July 11, 2014

State v. Medina: Can the Vermont Supreme Court Overrule the U.S. Supreme Court on DNA Databases?

Today the Vermont Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional Vermont’s law requiring individuals charged with any felony to submit to DNA sampling. The court reached this conclusion in a set of consolidated cases led by State v. Medina.

This outcome might seem surprising following the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Maryland v. King, 133 S. Ct. 1958 (2013) (discussed in many previous postings). After all, in King, the Court reversed the decision of Maryland’s highest court that a similar Maryland statute infringed an arrestee’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Vermont court faces no risk of reversal, however, for its opinion relies strictly on the protection against searches and seizures in the Vermont Constitution. Article 11 of this state constitution provides
That the people have a right to hold themselves, their houses, papers, and possessions, free from search or seizure; and therefore warrants, without oath or affirmation first made, affording sufficient foundation for them, and whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded or required to search suspected places, or to seize any person or persons, his, her or their property, not particularly described, are contrary to that right, and ought not to be granted.

The U.S. Supreme Court is only supreme when it comes to federal law. A state normally is free to adopt a statute or to interpret its constitution so as to confer greater rights on its citizens that those recognized for everyone in the federal Constitution.  The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Thus, Maryland v. King merely held that the Maryland Court of Appeal erred in construing the Fourth Amendment to bar DNA sampling soon after arrests for certain felonies (because, given the state and individual interests affected, the DNA sampling was “reasonable”). Even though some of the same words appear in Vermont's Article 11, the Vermont Supreme Court has the power to interpret them differently.

Indeed, the Maryland Court of Appeal could turn around and invalidate the Maryland law notwithstanding the Supreme Court's opinion in King. Article 26 of the Maryland Constitution of 1867 specifies
That all warrants, without oath or affirmation, to search suspected places, or to seize any person or property, are grievous and oppressive; and all general warrants to search suspected places, or to apprehend suspected persons, without naming or describing the place, or the person in special, are illegal, and ought not to be granted.

A new arrestee in Maryland might argue that Maryland's statute requiring the seizure of DNA without an oath or affirmation setting forth probable cause and approved by a magistrate is tantamount to a proscribed “general warrant” or “grievous and oppressive.” Of course, this is essentially the argument that the Supreme Court rejected for the Fourth Amendment, but a state court can embrace such reasoning as applied to its state constitution.

And that is what the Vermont Supreme Court did today, by a vote of 3–2.

Coming up: Analysis of the reasoning in Medina.

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