On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers may, without a warrant, take swabs for the purposes of analyzing and storing the DNA information of arrestees accused of certain crimes.
“Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Justice Anthony Kennedy, Majority Ruling
“Make no mistake about it: Because of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason. This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure . . . so would taking your children’s DNA when they start public school.” Justice Antonin Scalia, Dissent
I have a negative reaction to this ruling. DNA testing has been around a while now, so the science and its role in solving crimes is established and getting more precise. But a sample of DNA is fundamentally different than a fingerprint or a photograph, with all due respect to Justice Kennedy. The latter are essentially images of a person, each being a sort of two-dimensional residue. But a DNA sample is the person– their cells, containing their genetic identity at the most biologically fundamental level. It can be chemically copied, as indeed it is in order to magnify the signal needed to characterize it, in a way and to an extent that is well beyond a fingerprint or a picture. An artificial copy of the person themselves might even be available in the next few years, if recent reports are to be believed.
The train has probably already left the station in most folks’ minds, I suppose. Bad guys need to be caught and punished for their crimes. But I still think prudence is recommended despite the technical and law enforcement success this measure may advance. Incidentally, the systematic science of fingerprinting is credited to Sir Francis Galton– the same man who pioneered and coined the phrase “eugenics.” Go figure.