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Maryland law enforcement agencies resume DNA collections

Suspects arrested for violent crimes or burglaries will again have to submit to DNA collections, officials with several Maryland law enforcement agencies said Thursday.

A day after U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. authorized the practice to resume, at least temporarily, a number of police departments said they had decided to collect samples as they await further word from the high court.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether collecting the genetic information before a person is convicted violates the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The samples are used to link suspects to DNA evidence from previous crime scenes.

Roberts' order is a first step in a long process leading up to the Supreme Court's decision whether to take up the issue, which has split lower courts across the country. The federal government and about half the states allow police to collect DNA after an arrest.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, blocked the collections in April. A chief concern for those opposed to the practice is that the DNA samples, unlike fingerprints, provide access to a significant amount of personal information.

In his order, Roberts put the Maryland ban on hold and gave opponents of the law a week to respond before he decides whether to continue allowing the practice.

The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will continue collecting DNA samples based on the advice of the attorney general's office, according to Mark A. Vernarelli, the agency's director of public information. The agency handles bookings for Baltimore.

Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for Baltimore police, said the department strongly supports the practice.

"It's a tremendous public safety advantage, and we're anxious to see what the courts decide," Guglielmi said.

Some law enforcement agencies, such as that in Harford County, are still determining their next step, while other jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Howard counties, have resumed the collections.

Harford County Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said he is consulting with the state's attorney's office to ensure that whatever action they take does not jeopardize continuing investigations or prosecutions. But Bane hailed Roberts' decision as "great news."

"DNA is one of the greatest pieces of scientific evidence to come along in a very long time," Bane said in a statement. "It has tremendous value for law enforcement's attempts to identify individuals who have committed serious crimes."

Jack Kavanagh, director of the Howard County Department of Corrections, said the agency resumed the collections within hours of Roberts' order being issued, on the advice of the department's legal counsel.

"It was pretty clear there was no reason to delay," Kavanagh said. "We have staff who is trained. We had the legal clearance to do so. There was not a lot of logistical reasons not to resume collecting."

Maryland State Police also will resume analyzing the samples, spokeswoman Elena Russo said. Troopers in some locations will also collect suspects' DNA, she said.

"As soon as we received word about this judgment, we started putting all of the procedures back in place," Russo said.

State lawmakers authorized the collection of the post-arrest samples in 2009. Shortly afterward, Alonzo Jay King Jr. was arrested on assault charges. His DNA was run through the state database and was found to match evidence from a previously unsolved 2003 rape.

King was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The Court of Appeals decision in April reversed the sentence and ordered the case back to Wicomico County for a retrial.

The state challenged the ruling, and King's case is the one now before the Supreme Court for consideration.

Steven D. Schwinn, an associate professor at Chicago's John Marshall Law School, said Maryland's Court of Appeals was right to stop the collections of DNA samples after a suspect is arrested.

Schwinn said law enforcement can find a way to convict the guilty without relying on post-arrest DNA. There are other ways to collect such evidence that he doesn't believe would be banned under the ruling.

Police could ask the suspect to submit to a DNA test, for example, or buy the suspect fast food during an interrogation and collect DNA off a soda cup, he said.

"The police can get the same result even by respecting the Fourth Amendment, and that's what they ought to do," Schwinn said recently.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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