States can’t have it both ways when it comes to DNA evidence and other modern law enforcement tools. They use it for all cases that are relevant or not.
Law enforcement officers in Maryland arrested Alonzo Jay
King, Jr. on an assault charge. The
state requires that people arrested for certain crimes have a DNA sample
taken. It was later found that his DNA
matched a sample found during a rape investigation of a cold case from a few
years early. Alonzo, partially based on
the DNA evidence, was convicted of the rape.
Alonzo’s lawyer contested the evidence on the grounds that
it was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and
no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or
affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the
persons or things to be seized.
After moving through the state courts, a Maryland Court of
Appeals agreed with Alonzo and overturned the conviction on the rape.
Chief Justice John Roberts was watching the case. The chief justice after conferring with the
other judges on the court placed the lower court ruling on hold. Roberts believes it is a case that is likely
to be taken up by the court when its term begins in October.
Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler said in a statement
that he applauded the chief justice’s decision.
Gansler said it allows the state “the uninterrupted use of this critical
modern law enforcement tool” that helps authorities solve crimes. Since Gansler
wants to continue using “modern law enforcement tools” to solve crimes, he will
file an application to the high court in August to overturn the lower court
There are two issues in this case that is important. The first is the obvious Fourth Amendment
issue that asks if evidence from one case can be used in the investigation of
another case. Keep in mind, the DNA
sample taken from Alonzo on the assault charge is legal. It is important to identify an individual
charged with a crime and match it against any evidence found on the crime
scene. This would be no different than
taking finger prints, or for that matter, a photograph. This evidence, once collected, is now part of
the public domain. If police have DNA
evidence of the suspect, they should be able to use it just like finger prints
or a photograph.
But, there is a paradoxical problem here. It isn’t about using collected evidence from
one case to identify a suspect in another.
It is about using “modern law enforcement tools” as the attorney general
of the state of Maryland said, to help solve crimes.
If government is tasked with any job, it is to protect
individuals living in the community. The
obvious task is to protect individuals from other people that may do them
harm. But, it is also to protect individuals from
the system. Communities need to also be
sure that a suspect is the correct person, even after conviction.
Before DNA testing as a modern law enforcement tool was
widely available, samples were not collected from individuals or from other evidence
discovered by the investigating authorities.
In most cases, it can now be collected, even from much smaller samples
then previous thought. Some people that
have been convicted of a crime are asking the states to use DNA testing on the
evidence used to convict them. But, in
many cases, states have refused to or would only conduct the testing if forced
to by the courts.
States claim that there must be certainty in a
conviction. The theory is that since the
cases were prosecuted with the best resources available at the time, the
conviction should stand. That any review
opens up the community to an endless drain on resources that could be better
used to pursue current cases.
But, that is the paradox.
Prosecutors may not want to reopen cases that ended in a conviction, but
there is no prosecutor, that wouldn’t reopen a cold case if DNA could be used
to enhance the evidence. (That is
exactly what happened here.) If they are
willing to use modern law enforcement tools to reopen cold cases they should
also use it to re-assure the community that they have the right person in
As a community, we start with the presumption of innocence
to anyone that is the focus of a criminal investigation and prosecution. (The phrase presumption of innocence, by the
way, is not used in the Constitution.)
After conviction, there is no reason that when new evidence presents
itself by advancements in law enforce tools we should not at least give the
benefit of the doubt to the individual.