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Police Officers Can Collect DNA Samples from Arrestees

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 28, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that police officers may collect DNA samples from persons under arrest, finding that a DNA sample is no more than a fingerprint "for the twenty-first century." The court emphasized the government's compelling interest in identifying suspects and the unique attributes of DNA evidence to support its decision.

Civil rights groups, including the ACLU, argue that collecting a DNA sample is more invasive than fingerprinting an arrestee, and a violation of privacy, while proponents of DNA sampling maintain that the practice is constitutional because arrestees have a low expectation of privacy.

The constitutional brouhaha grew out of a federal drug charge. The defendant, Ruben Mitchell, was indicted with possession with intent to distribute cocaine after he allegedly lost track of more than 40 pounds of cocaine in a misdirected piece of luggage during a Pittsburgh-bound Southwest Airlines flight, and filed a lost-baggage claim for it. Police officers sought to collect a DNA sample from Mitchell after the indictment under a directive from the U.S. Attorney General’s office. Mitchell argued that the collection violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

After toiling in the lower courts, the case was decided on Monday in an 8-6 opinion. Originally argued before a three-judge panel in April, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the circuit made an unusual procedural decision to hear the case en banc re-argument without releasing a decision from the three judges. John Knorr, Mitchell’s defense attorney, said he may appeal the Third Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to The Republic.

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