California Supreme Court authorizes DNA warrants for unknown suspects

[JURIST]The Supreme Court of California [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-2 Monday to authorize the use of "John Doe" arrest warrants, which replace an unknown suspect's name with his or her DNA profile as the unique identifier. Prosecutors have increasingly been using these warrants as a means of satisfying the statute of limitations in criminal cases. California law, which echoes the language of the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment [text], holds that prosecution for an offense commences when an arrest warrant is issued and "names or describes the defendant with the same degree of particularity required for [a] complaint." Focusing on the point of particularity, the court held that DNA profiles describe the suspect sufficiently for identification:


A warrant or complaint is an accusation against a person, and not against a name, and [w]hen the name is unknown, the person may be identified with the best description available. ... A genetic code describes a person with far greater precision than a physical description or a name. ... For purposes of the Fourth Amendment, we conclude that the arrest warrant in question, which described the defendant by his 13-loci DNA profile and included an explanation that the profile had a random match probability such that there was essentially no chance of its being duplicated in the human population except in the case of genetically identical sibling, complied with the mandate of our federal Constitution that the person seized be described with particularity. ... We likewise conclude the arrest warrant in question described the defendant with sufficient particularity to avoid a violation of the warrant particularity requirement of our state Constitution.

Dissenting judge Carlos Moreno questioned the authenticity of John Doe warrants, claiming that the document was "a clever artifice intended solely to satisfy the statute of limitations until the identity of the perpetrator could be discovered." Moreno stated that the warrant did not become effective until a fictitious name is replaced with the suspect's real name, and at that point the statute of limitations has expired.

The court's ruling upheld the conviction of Paul Robinson on sexual assault charges. Evidence linking Robinson to the crime was discovered when his DNA was mistakenly collected and entered into the state's DNA database, which matched his profile with that of the suspect profile in the John Doe warrant. DNA databases are a controversial issue. In May, a federal court upheld the constitutionality [JURIST report] of mandatory DNA collection for all persons arrested or detained under federal authority. Judge Gregory Hollows of the US District Court for the Eastern District of California [official website] found that although the collection of DNA from those arrested on federal felony, sexual abuse, or violent crime charges does constitute a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, a person arrested based on probable cause "has a diminished expectation of privacy in his own identity." Federal agencies began collecting DNA samples [JURIST report] in 2008, although they had been authorized to do so since 2006.

 

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