On June 3, 2013, the United States Supreme Court decided Maryland v. King [i] which involved the issue of whether a Maryland statute that required arrestees of violent crimes to submit to a “buccal swab” of their cheek for a DNA sample was constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

In King, the defendant was arrested in April of 2009 for threatening a group of people with a shotgun.  He was charged under Maryland statute with first and second degree assault, and he was taken to Wicomico County Central Booking facility.  There, booking personnel, pursuant to the Maryland DNA Collection Act, used a cheek swab to obtain a DNA sample from King.  It was uploaded to the Maryland DNA database and a few months later, it returned as a match to an unsolved 2003 rape case.  King was indicted and police obtained a search warrant to conduct a confirmation DNA test.  This was also a match.  King filed a motion to suppress the first DNA test and argued that the Maryland statute that required the original DNA sample violated the Fourth Amendment.  The motion was denied and King was convicted of the rape.

King later appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Maryland Court of Appeals.  The court of appeals struck down the statute as an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.  The state filed for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case because various state and federal courts have reached different conclusions regarding the constitutionality of statutes such as the Maryland DNA Collection Act.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether, when officers make an arrest for a serious offense that is supported by probable cause, it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to require the arrestee to submit to a cheek swab as part of booking procedures for the purpose of collecting DNA to be sent to a database used for matching DNA of suspects to DNA found at crime scenes.

The Supreme Court, describing the Maryland DNA Collection Act, stated that the Act

authorizes Maryland law enforcement authorities to collect DNA samples from “an individual who is charged with . . . a crime of violence or an attempt to commit a crime of violence; or . . . burglary or an attempt to commit burglary.” Md. Pub. Saf. Code Ann. §2-504(a)(3)(i) (Lexis 2011). [ii]

The Act also places restrictions or limitations on when and how law enforcement can use the sample.

In analyzing the issue at hand, the court first noted that obtaining a swab from the inside of a person’s cheek is a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes. [iii]  However, the court also noted that not all warrantless searches are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  Particularly, the Supreme Court stated that, in some circumstances, when faced with special law enforcement related needs, minimal intrusions may be deemed reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court, in a rather lengthy opinion, then set out to balance the government’s interest in obtaining the DNA sample against King’s reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court held

In light of the context of a valid arrest supported by probable cause respondent’s expectations of privacy were not offended by the minor intrusion of a brief swab of his cheeks. By contrast, that same context of arrest gives rise to significant state interests in identifying respondent not only so that the proper name can be attached to his charges but also so that the criminal justice system can make informed decisions concerning pretrial custody. Upon these considerations the Court concludes that HN46 DNA identification of arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of a routine booking procedure. 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, 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. [iv]

Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Maryland Court of Appeals.


Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.



[i] No. 12-207, 2013 U.S. LEXIS 4165

[ii] Id. at 14

[iii] Id. at 18

[iv] Id. at 52-53

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