Wednesday, August 1, 2012

States can't have it both ways

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 ruling.

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 prison.

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.