This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a Maryland DNA case should give new life to efforts that died last year in the Legislature.
Those efforts held promise for solving serious cold cases and for exonerating people who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.
As a House member in 2012, state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, sponsored a bill that would have required collection of DNA samples from persons arrested for major felonies and two gross misdemeanors (stalking and violating a protection order). State law already allows for DNA collection upon conviction or with a search warrant.
Authorities in other states have found that waiting until conviction to collect DNA samples can come with a high cost: Many crimes would never have been committed had they been able to get a sample upon arrest. For instance, suspects out on bail have committed new crimes that might have been prevented had their DNA link to unsolved crimes been discovered earlier.
To address privacy concerns of collecting DNA upon arrest, Darneille’s bill required judicial review at arraignment to determine that there was probable cause to charge the suspect. Only then could the DNA sample — taken upon arrest with a simple cheek swab — be entered into state and federal databases. A suspect found not guilty or whose charge was reduced to a misdemeanor could ask that the DNA sample be destroyed and removed from the DNA identification system.
We believe those measures would address constitutional concerns at the state level. And Monday’s high court ruling shows that Darneille’s bill certainly would pass federal constitutional muster. The federal government and 26 other states already allow collection of DNA samples upon arrest for serious crimes and have more lenient DNA collection rules than under Darneille’s bill.
The Supreme Court ruled that DNA collection is essentially a modern advancement — and a more reliable one — on such commonly accepted identification techniques as mug shots and fingerprints, and that it is a “reasonable” search under the Fourth Amendment.
DNA samples have been used to exonerate an estimated 300 incarcerated persons and to solve many old crimes — almost always such violent offenses as rape and murder, which are more likely to yield biological evidence. State lawmakers should take the court ruling to heart and act to better protect their constituents from violent crime.