California Supreme Court: authorities may collect DNA of suspected felons in custody

California Supreme Court: authorities may collect DNA of suspected felons in custody

The California Supreme Court [official website] held [opinion, PDF] Monday that Proposition 69, otherwise known as the DNA Fingerprint, Unsolved Crime and Innocence Protection Act (DNA Act), which authorizes and requires law enforcement officials to collect DNA samples and fingerprints from all persons who are arrested for and/or convicted of felony offenses, is reasonable and valid under the state’s constitution.

The case concerned Mark Buza, who was arrested for arson and related felonies and transported to jail. At booking, Buza was informed that he was required to provide a DNA sample. Buza refused to comply and was later convicted by a jury of both the arson and the related felonies. He was additionally convicted of a misdemeanor offense for refusing to provide a sample of his DNA, as mandated by the DNA Act.

A California appeals court reversed the conviction holding that the DNA Act violated defendant’s rights under the Fourth Amendment [GPO backgrounder, PDF] to the US Constitution. While an appeal of that decision was pending before the California Supreme Court, the US Supreme Court [official website], in a similar case [JURIST report] involving Maryland law enforcement, held that “[w]hen 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, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is” a constitutionally valid practice under the Fourth Amendment similar to fingerprinting and photographing that are likewise constitutionally valid.

That decision effectively terminated the pending appeal on the federal question and the California Supreme Court remanded the case to the court of appeal. The court of appeal once again reversed the trial court on remand—this time on state constitutional grounds. Essentially, the court of appeal held that the DNA Act violated art. I, § 13 [text] of the California Constitution prohibiting “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This was the decision that the California Supreme Court adjudicated upon on Monday.

Holding that the DNA Act and its authorized practice of collecting DNA samples from suspects in custody does not violate the state constitution, the court reversed the court of appeal:

We, too, are mindful of the heightened privacy interests in the sensitive information that can be extracted from a person’s DNA. These interests implicate not only article I, § 13, but the privacy rights enjoyed by all Californians under the explicit protection of article I, § 1 of the California Constitution. … But our cases have also recognized that safeguards against the wrongful use or disclosure of sensitive information may minimize the privacy intrusion when the government accesses personal information, including sensitive medical information. … we cannot ignore the safeguards built into the DNA Act: the limited nature of the information stored in databases on an arrestee (specifically, a numerical profile describing noncoding parts of the arrestee’s DNA); the legal protections against possible misuse of the profile or the sample (including felony sanctions for knowing improper use or dissemination); and the availability of procedures for removing the profile from the database and destroying the sample should the basis for the arrestee’s inclusion dissipate. We have no record before us to show that these legal protections would have been violated or proved unworkable had defendant chosen to comply with the requirement to provide a DNA sample on booking.

The dissent criticized the holding by pointing to the “startling breadth of DNA collection and retention” provision in the DNA Act terming it a “biological dragnet” as opposed a carefully calibrated scheme to identify felony offenders. Particularly noting the fact that one in five arrests do not even result in prosecution in California, the dissent expressed serious concerns about the inadequacy of the expungement process in California that, unlike in Maryland, is not automatic.

Stating that “the extensive documentation, notice to multiple parties, judicial hearing, and additional steps required for expungement place a significant burden on eligible persons, assuming they are even aware of the process,” the dissent added that although the DNA Act provides for the destruction of the DNA specimen and expungement of the searchable profile of a person whose arrest resulted in no charge or conviction if the state has “no legal basis for retaining” them, it still gives courts broad discretion “to grant or deny the request for expungement.”