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Is drunk driving 'serious' enough to warrant mandatory DNA swabs?

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court released a ruling that took many observers by surprise. In the case of Maryland v. King, the court found no constitutional problem with requiring anyone arrested for a "serious crime" to submit to a DNA cheek swab and have their genetic information entered into a giant national database. Yet in April, the court held that law enforcement generally can't draw blood from drunk driving suspects without a warrant.

Does that mean that people arrested for suspected drunk driving could have their DNA taken via cheek swab but couldn't have their blood taken for alcohol testing? It very well may.

The ruling was issued by a bare 5-4 majority, which was asked to weigh whether compulsory DNA contributions to the national database violate the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. The government's interest in collecting a colossal database of citizen's biometric and genetic material is so law enforcement can troll it for possible DNA matches in cold cases. 

The majority decided that interest outweighs any individual citizen's right to genetic privacy -- even if they were racially profiled, wrongly arrested, or subsequently acquitted. At least, it does for people arrested for "serious crimes." However, the court did not define which crimes are to be considered "serious."

The April case involved whether police could force DUI suspects to undergo a painful and intrusive syringe-stick to determine their intoxication level. The court held that it was a Fourth Amendment violation for police to do so without getting a warrant. The Florida Supreme Court had already ruled that police cannot compel DUI suspects to undergo blood draws, but DNA cheek swipes are still open to police interpretation.

Since the high court did not define "serious crimes" in its ruling, the question of which arrestees will be added to the biometric database will be left up to law enforcement or state legislatures and courts. If police consider drunk driving, which is typically a misdemeanor, to be "serious," thousands of people merely suspected of misdemeanors will have their DNA profiles added to the federal database.

The fiery Antonin Scalia angrily dissented from the opinion, joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. He suspects the failure to define "serious" will indeed mean the limitation will have no impact.

"Your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason," he wrote. "The proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would not have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection."

Source: USA TODAY, "Supreme Court OKs DNA swab of people under arrest," Richard Wolf, June 3, 2013

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