Maryland is exaggerating the value of collecting DNA samples before suspects are convicted, the state's top public defender argued in a filing Friday before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state asked the nation's highest court to decide whether collecting DNA samples to tie suspects to other crimes is a violation of their constitutional rights or a viable crime-fighting tool.
In response to a temporary stay issued by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe urged the high court to uphold an April decision by the state Court of Appeals to block the collection of DNA samples after a suspect is arrested but not convicted in a violent crime, burglary or an attempt to commit such crimes.
"The state greatly overstates the degree to which the decision ... inconveniences law enforcement and prosecutors," DeWolfe wrote.
Opponents of the practice, including DeWolfe, contend that collecting DNA evidence before a conviction is a violation of the suspect's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Law enforcement officials collect DNA samples and compare them to a database to see whether they match evidence from previous crimes.
Roberts recently authorized Maryland law enforcement officials to temporarily resume the collections. The chief justice could decide as early as next week to allow the practice to continue while the high court determines whether it will hear the case.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler petitioned the Supreme Court to allow the collection of samples to resume.
"There is no reasonable, principled distinction to be made between taking and using fingerprints for identification purposes and taking and using DNA identifiers for identification purposes," Gansler wrote.
The Maryland legislature authorized law enforcement to collect the samples in 2009. About half the states and the federal government collect post-arrest DNA, and lower courts are split on whether the practice is constitutional.
DeWolfe wrote that 19 samples, or less than 1 percent of those collected in the state last year, led to an arrest for a previous crime. Fewer than half of the 19 resulted in a conviction.
"A program of warrantless collection and search of DNA where 99.82 percent of the persons subjected to mandatory collection of their genetic blueprint are not arrested as a result of the search represents a substantial public interest in upholding Fourth Amendment protections," DeWolfe wrote.
The attorney general argued in his petition that post-arrest DNA collection resulted in 58 criminal prosecutions from 2009 to 2011.
DeWolfe's office represents Alonzo Jay King Jr. whose DNA was used to link him to a 2003 rape in Salisbury. King's DNA was taken after he was arrested in 2009 on unrelated assault charges. He was sentenced to life in prison on the rape conviction, but the state Court of Appeals reversed the verdict and sent the case back to the Wicomico County Circuit Court for a new trial.