The US Supreme Court on Monday upheld the power of law enforcement officers to take DNA samples from suspects of serious crimes, saying it's no different than fingerprinting or mug shots.
In a 5-4 decision, the highest court in the nation reinstated the 2003 rape conviction of a Maryland man that hinged on DNA collected when he was taken into custody in an unrelated assault case six years later.
"DNA identification of arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of a routine booking procedure," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority.
"Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment," Kennedy said.
Police in Maryland, using a buccal swab, had collected DNA from Alonzo King when he was arrested in the Mid-Atlantic state's Eastern Shore region in 2009 for threatening a group of people with a shotgun.
When that sample went into the state DNA database, it was found to match DNA collected in 2003 in an Eastern Shore rape case in which the victim had been attacked by an armed intruder in her home.
It went on to be used to charge, convict and sentence King to life in prison for rape -- but the verdict was overturned by Maryland's Court of Appeals, which deemed the DNA swab to be a violation of King's rights against unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
Setting out his dissenting view, Justice Antonin Scalia expressed deep concern about the potential of DNA samples winding up in a national database "if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason."
"Solving unsolved crimes is a noble objective, but it occupies a lower place in the American pantheon of noble objectives than the protection of our people from suspicionless law-enforcement searches," he wrote.