U.S. Supreme Court will decide if routine DNA tests are OK

  • Article by: DAVID G. SAVAGE , Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Updated: February 3, 2013 - 9:23 PM

Some argue that such tests infringe on privacy rights and should only be allowed after suspects have been convicted of a crime.

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A Bureau of Criminal Apprehension forensic scientist prepared DNA samples for testing.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - On a cold February night three years ago, police in suburban Arlington, Va., received a frantic call. A young woman said her roommate had been abducted by a short, clean-shaven man who drove a silver SUV.

A motorist later saw the victim in a field, raped and choked, but alive. Police soon arrested a short, clean-shaven Marine named Jorge Torrez.

Ten years ago, Virginia became the first state to require, upon arrest for a serious crime, a mouth swab for DNA. The sample from Torrez, sent to a state crime lab and entered into the FBI's DNA database, confirmed he was the rapist. Later, a DNA match also led to charges against him in the rape and murder of two girls, ages 8 and 9, in Zion, Ill. Jerry Hobbs, the father of one of the girls, had been in prison for the crimes.

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a privacy rights challenge to taking DNA from people who are arrested. The case could either end the practice or make it the norm nationwide.

Arlington County Deputy Police Chief Daniel Murray says the Torrez case shows the value of taking DNA. "It's extremely important to quickly identify someone who would be a danger to society if he were on the loose," he said. In this instance the DNA match freed an innocent man.

Nationwide, DNA samples are taken from people who are convicted of violent crimes.

Going further, the federal government and 28 states now take DNA samples from some or all who are arrested but not yet convicted of serious crimes. Besides taking fingerprints, the standard jail booking now often includes taking a DNA swab, which prosecutors say is simple and painless.

But the constitutionality of taking DNA upon arrest remains in doubt.

The Supreme Court justices will hear the case of Maryland vs. King to decide whether requiring DNA from someone taken into custody but not convicted is an "unreasonable search" forbidden by the Fourth Amendment.

In 2009, Alonzo King from Salisbury, Md., was arrested for waving a shotgun in a threatening manner, a felony, calling for a DNA test. He later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge for which no DNA test was required. But the earlier DNA sample pointed to him as the man who had raped a woman six years earlier. King was convicted and given a life term.

But Maryland's high court threw out his conviction and ruled police may not take DNA without a search warrant and some reason to believe the suspect had committed another offense.

But victims rights groups and others have urged the court to rule that routine DNA testing upon arrest is reasonable and constitutional.

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