Widening the DNA dragnet

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board June 12, 2013 08:39 am

If the federal government thinks groups that toss around words such as “liberty” deserve extra scrutiny as to their tax-exempt status, just imagine what that gargantuan enterprise might do with a detailed map of you, at the sub-cellular level.

Recently, with nearly daily revelations about the feds’ efforts to find out what you’re saying, and to prevent you from finding out what they’re up to, even a staunch defender of the benevolence of an omnipotent government must wonder whether his trust has been misplaced.

Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which validates the practice of having police take DNA samples from people who have been arrested, but not convicted, only thickens the Orwellian clouds of concern about our lack of privacy.

Justice Antonin Scalia, the renowned conservative who was joined in his dissent by the High Court’s most liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, neatly summarized the possible, and troubling, ramifications:

“Make no mistake about it: Because of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason,” Scalia wrote in his dissent.

But happily, this prospect is not a certainty in Oregon.

This is among 22 states that does not allow police to take DNA samples, without consent, from people who have only been arrested. We hope Oregon maintains that standard.

The Supreme Court ruling dealt with a case in Maryland, which is one of 28 states where police can take DNA samples from people arrested for rape and other violent crimes.

Federal law enforcement officials can do the same under federal law.

That DNA can aid police in solving crimes, and prosecutors in securing convictions, is beyond question.

Scalia acknowledged this in his dissent.

Yet we’re not convinced that eviscerating the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures is necessary if police are to make good use of DNA technology.

The Maryland case that prompted the Supreme Court’s ruling is a good example.

A Maryland court had ruled not that police couldn’t take a DNA sample from rape suspect Alonzo King (who was convicted of the crime), but that they needed to get approval from a judge first.

That’s hardly unreasonable.

King was already in custody, which means police had a reason, other than his DNA, to believe he was guilty.

The Supreme Court’s decision in effect makes DNA equivalent to a mug shot or fingerprints in the standard booking procedure.

But DNA is a vastly different thing — most importantly, it contains vastly more personal information.

We don’t think the government is entitled to take that information from anyone who, as Scalia pointed out, is merely suspected of any crime.