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Scalia Dissent

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I learned last week that like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day, Supreme Court Justice Scalia is right, too, when given the passage of sufficient time. The court decided last Monday in a 5-4 decision that

police may take DNA samples from people arrested in connection with serious crimes … .

The federal government and 28 states authorize the practice, and law enforcement officials say it is a valuable tool for investigating unsolved crimes. But the court said the testing was justified by a different reason: to identify the suspect in custody.

“When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and they bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, “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.”

Justice Antonin Scalia summarized his dissent from the bench, a rare move signaling deep disagreement. He accused the majority of an unsuccessful sleight of hand, one that “taxes the credulity of the credulous.” The point of DNA testing as it is actually practiced, he said, is to solve cold cases, not to identify the suspect in custody.

But the Fourth Amendment forbids searches without reasonable suspicion to gather evidence about an unrelated crime, he said, a point the majority did not dispute. “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,” Justice Scalia said from the bench.

Justice Kennedy’s decision and Justice Scalia’s dissent (joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) can be found here. I’ll quote two passages from the dissent, with references removed. (The missing references can be found in the linked document.)

First, early on:

The Court alludes at several points to the fact that King was an arrestee, and arrestees may be validly searched incident to their arrest. But the Court does not really rest on this principle, and for good reason: The objects of a search incident to arrest must be either (1) weapons or evidence that might easily be destroyed, or (2) evidence relevant to the crime of arrest. Neither is the object of the search at issue here.

The Court hastens to clarify that it does not mean to approve invasive surgery on arrestees or warrantless searches of their homes. That the Court feels the need to disclaim these consequences is as damning a criticism of its suspicionless-search regime as any I can muster. And the Court’s attempt to distinguish those hypothetical searches from this real one is unconvincing. We are told that the “privacy-related concerns” in the search of a home “are weighty enough that the search may require a warrant, notwithstanding the diminished expectations of privacy of the arrestee.” But why are the “privacy-related concerns” not also “weighty” when an intrusion into the body is at stake? (The Fourth Amendment lists “persons” first among the entities protected against unreasonable searches and seizures.) And could the police engage, without any suspicion of wrongdoing, in a “brief and … minimal” intrusion into the home of an arrestee-perhaps just peeking around the curtilage a bit? Obviously not.

At any rate, all this discussion is beside the point. No matter the degree of invasiveness, suspicionless searches are never allowed if their principal end is ordinary crime-solving. A search incident to arrest either serves other ends (such as officer safety, in a search for weapons) or is not suspicionless (as when there is reason to believe the arrestee possesses evidence relevant to the crime of arrest).

Sensing (correctly) that it needs more, the Court elaborates at length the ways that the search here served the special purpose of “identifying” King. But that seems to me quite wrong-unless what one means by “identifying” someone is “searching for evidence that he has committed crimes unrelated to the crime of his arrest.” At points the Court does appear to use “identifying” in that peculiar sense-claiming, for example, that knowing “an arrestee’s past conduct is essential to an assessment of the danger he poses.” If identifying someone means finding out what unsolved crimes he has committed, then identification is indistinguishable from the ordinary law-enforcement aims that have never been thought to justify a suspicionless search. Searching every lawfully stopped car, for example, might turn up information about unsolved crimes the driver had committed, but no one would say that such a search was aimed at “identifying” him, and no court would hold such a search lawful. I will therefore assume that the Court means that the DNA search at issue here was useful to “identify” King in the normal sense of that word-in the sense that would identify the author of Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation as Jeremy Bentham.

And in conclusion:

The most regrettable aspect of the suspicionless search that occurred here is that it proved to be quite unnecessary. All parties concede that it would have been entirely permissible, as far as the Fourth Amendment is concerned, for Maryland to take a sample of King’s DNA as a consequence of his conviction for second-degree assault. So the ironic result of the Court’s error is this: The only arrestees to whom the outcome here will ever make a difference are those who have been acquitted of the crime of arrest (so that their DNA could not have been taken upon conviction). In other words, this Act manages to burden uniquely the sole group for whom the Fourth Amendment ‘s protections ought to be most jealously guarded: people who are innocent of the State’s accusations.

Today’s judgment will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes; then again, so would the taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane (surely the Transportation Security Administration needs to know the “identity” of the flying public), applies for a driver’s license, or attends a public school. Perhaps the construction of such a genetic panopticon is wise. But I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.

What a great closing sentence!

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Categories: Law
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