Thursday, March 5, 2015

The (Lack of) Meaning of the Supreme Court's Disposition of Raynor v. State

Yesterday, Popular Science reported that a “recent refusal by the Supreme Court means that involuntary DNA collection isn't unconstitutional.” This will come as a surprise to the Justices who voted to deny a writ of certiorari to the Maryland Court of Appeals in Raynor v. State, 99 A.3d 753 (Md. 2014).

Raynor is one of many cases in which courts have concluded that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures” does not apply to acquiring and testing naturally shed DNA. This particular case arose when, two years after a reported rape, the victim told police that she suspected Glenn Raynor had attacked her. Raynor agreed to come to a police station to answer questions. At the interview, he declined to provide a DNA sample, but after he left, police took swabs of the armrests of the chair in which had sat. The trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence of the incriminating match that followed, noting that “if he was so concerned about it, he should have worn a long sleeve shirt.” A conviction and a 100-year sentence of imprisonment followed.

According to the Popular Science article,
Raynor appealed the decision, saying the DNA evidence shouldn't have been used because it was collected without his consent. The appeal made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, which on Monday, the court announced [sic] that it would not hear the case. The Supreme Court did not comment on the denial—and to be fair, they get requests to hear a whole lot of cases every year and have to deny a majority of them—[but] their refusal to hear the case means they stand with the lower court’s majority opinion [which stated that]:
We hold that DNA testing of the 13 identifying junk loci within genetic material, not obtained by means of a physical intrusion into the person’s body, is no more a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, than is the testing of fingerprints, or the observation of any other identifying feature revealed to the public—visage, apparent age, body type, skin color.
In fact, the Supreme Court denies some 97% of the petitions it receives from private parties. Any first year law student knows that denying one of these 7,000 or so petitions does not mean that the Court “stand[s] with the lower court’s majority opinion.” It merely means that, for any number of possible reasons, four of the nine Justices did not vote to re-examine the case. In short, although police have been doing such testing time and again over the last twenty years or so, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to approve — or disapprove — of the constitutionality of the practice.

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1 comment:

  1. This is not the first time the Court has declined to hear a "surreptitious collection" DNA case. The authority is, to my knowledge, almost universally in favor of allowing police to do DNA tests on cells which lawfully came into their possession.

    The constitutionality of fingerprint comparisons has also never been ruled upon by the Supreme Court. That doesn't make them unconstitutional. At this point, I think it's safe to say that it is presumptively constitutional unless the SCOTUS says otherwise, and not the other way around.