The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

June 10, 2013

Other Views: DNA ruling troubling

— Do you trust government? Well, you better, thanks to a new U.S. Supreme Court decision that gives law enforcement — and ultimately others in government — the ability to access sweeping new information about individuals.

It comes courtesy of a high court decision that upholds the constitutionality of police procedures in states where DNA samples are collected from all people arrested for serious crimes. The fact these individuals are supposedly innocent until proven guilty, and the fact the DNA may not be needed in the case at hand, is apparently beside the point.

We suspect other states — including Pennsylvania — now will be inclined to adopt this practice.

The court reached its DNA ruling in one of its now-famous 5-4 decisions. But this time, there was an unusual split, with liberal Justice Stephen Breyer joining most of the court’s conservatives in supporting the decision. But conservative Justice Antonin Scalia sided with the minority, arguing, “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.”

The majority opinion in the case was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the court’s swing vote.

Kennedy minimized any civil liberties concerns about the decision, writing, “Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

Except that Kennedy’s dead wrong. And here’s why. Fingerprints and photographs serve very limited purposes in terms of identifying individuals. They tell government nothing else about us.

But DNA tells everything about us. It is what we are. To dismiss the taking of DNA samples as nothing more than another identification technique ignores a host of disturbing ramifications.

And some of these were raised by Scalia in his written dissent. In particular, he warned that the ruling, technically limited to “serious” crimes, undoubtedly will be expanded to others should governments decide it’s desirable to do so.

“If you believe that a DNA search will identify someone arrested for bank robbery,” Scalia said, “you must believe that it will identify someone arrested for running a red light.”

At a time when the public has reasons for being suspicious of government intentions and the scope of its power — ranging from IRS probes to the seizing of news organization phone records — you would think the court might see a flaw in widespread DNA collections. Instead, Americans are given another reason to wonder what government will do with all that information.

— The New Castle, Pa., News

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