The state has overemphasized collecting DNA samples from those arrested for crimes of violence to solve cases while not putting enough resources into gathering forensic evidence at crime scenes, according to an official with the Maryland Public Defender’s Office.
State officials are making a “hysterical argument” that they need to be able to continue to collect the evidence from suspects, said Steven Mercer, chief public defender for the forensic’s division of the office.
Mercer reacted after Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that it is unconstitutional to collect DNA samples from those merely arrested for crimes of violence.
Gansler’s motion asking for the Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision is flawed, Mercer said.
“In a nutshell, the state has advanced no reasons in its motion that it hasn’t already put before the court,” Mercer said.
From a law enforcement standpoint, it makes sense for the state to focus more on fully combing crime scenes than in hoping for a random hit in a DNA database, he said.
State police statistics also show DNA collections are disproportionately from black suspects, Mercer said.
Gansler (D) had asked that the Court of Appeals issue a stay of its order until his office can appeal the ruling. Supporters of the DNA law, from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to law-enforcement agencies across the state, have called for an appeal.
If the Court of Appeals does not reconsider its ruling, which involved a rape case in Wicomico County, or if it fails to issue a stay, Gansler said he will ask the Supreme Court to issue a stay until it decides whether or not to hear the case.
Federal courts and nearly every state court that has considered the issue of collecting DNA samples from those arrested for crimes have ruled the practice constitutional, Gansler said.
The collection of a DNA sample from a suspect is done using a Q-Tip like tool called a buccal swab. The sample is taken from inside the suspect’s cheek and put in a petri dish, Gansler said.
Collecting the DNA of an arrested person is similar to fingerprinting suspects when they are arrested for crimes and then running the prints through a database, Gansler said.
“We take fingerprints from everyone, and arguably fingerprints are more intrusive than taking a buccal swab of DNA,” Gansler said.
The Court of Appeals decision “undermines important public safety objectives that the General Assembly sought to achieve,” according to the attorney general’s motion.
The DNA collection has helped solve 190 cases and has exonerated some who were wrongly convicted, according to the motion.
But Mercer said the state’s own reports show few arrests resulted from the collection of DNA from those arrested for other crimes, Mercer said.
In 2011, there were 23 arrests, in 2010 there were 22, and in 2009 there were 19, Mercer said.
Opponents of the law had warned that the 2008 amendments to the state’s DNA Collection Act that allowed for the collection of DNA samples from those arrested would be found unconstitutional. Prior to the changes in the law, DNA could be taken only from those convicted of a violent crime.
David Rocah of Maryland’s American Civil Liberties Union said the court’s 5-2 ruling protects the public from government encroachment.
The ACLU and others will challenge efforts to make the DNA collection permanent, Rocah said. A number of legislators were skeptical of the state’s effort in 2008, and it was scheduled to sunset on Dec. 31, 2013, if not renewed by legislation.