The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that police can take a DNA swab from anyone they arrest for a serious crime, upholding a practice already followed by more than half the states in the country. South Carolina, though, is not one of those states.
The deeply divided court ruled 5-4 that taking and analyzing a cheek swab of an arrestee’s DNA is a legitimate police booking procedure like fingerprinting and photographing. This was the right decision, and one that will indeed save lives and prevent crimes in the states that allow it; however, in South Carolina, a defendant’s DNA can only be obtained if they consent to give it, authorities obtain a search warrant or by having a hearing in front of a circuit judge to determine that obtaining the sample is constitutional.
Dissenters say allowing the DNA samples could mean a slippery slope toward other DNA sample requirements.
“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,” Justice Antonin Scalia said in a dissent. “This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA when you fly on an airplane – surely the TSA must know the ‘identity’ of the flying public. For that matter, so would taking your children’s DNA when they start public school.”
The Supreme Court case involved a Maryland man convicted of a 2003 rape and sentenced to life in prison. He had been arrested four years earlier on an unrelated assault charge, and a DNA sample was taken at that time. That sample was linked to the other sexual assault. In December, Congress passed the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, which helps states fund the expanded DNA profile system. Sepich was murdered in 2003, but her killer was not identified until he was convicted of another crime three years later, when his DNA matched evidence found under Sepich’s fingernails.
A similar case unfolded in Aiken. In August 2000, 17-year-old Jessica Carpenter was sexually assaulted and strangled with a telephone cord before her killer slashed her throat with a knife inside her family’s Crosland Park home. Investigators worked and took DNA samples from nearly 100 people over two years, and in 2002, just days after the two-year anniversary of Carpenter’s death, police linked an inmate in Georgia to Carpenter’s murder after his DNA was put into a state database in Georgia. The DNA of Robert Franklin Atkins, who later pled guilty to Carpenter’s murder, was obtained only after he was convicted of another crime. Changing the laws to allow a DNA sample after arrest without a warrant would greatly benefit law enforcement in solving, and perhaps even preventing, crimes.
“It’d be a great starting point in a lot of cases,” Assistant Solicitor Bill Weeks told the Aiken Standard. “It’s one thing to obtain a sample from a crime scene and envelop a DNA profile from it, but if you don’t have anybody to compare it to, it’s like 6 billion people on Earth could have left that sample.”
The laws in South Carolina need to change so that law enforcement in the state can get a jump start on solving – and possibly even preventing – the next Jessica Carpenter case.