Supreme Court Decision Revives Washington State Debate Over DNA Collection

Jun 4, 2013

A legislator in Washington state says she will revive a bill that would make it easier for police to collect DNA samples. That’s in the wake of a US Supreme Court ruling Monday. The five-to-four ruling upheld a Maryland law that allows police to collect DNA samples at the time of arrest from people who are charged with certain violent crimes or sex offenses.

State Senator Darneille, D-Tacoma, said she was “delighted” with Monday’s US Supreme Court ruling. “I see this as a real opportunity for us to move forward with our bill here in Washington.”

Currently, Maryland and 27 other states allow police to collect DNA samples at the same time they photograph and fingerprint a suspect. They get it by taking a simple cheek swab. 

That’s not allowed in Washington state. Police can only collect DNA samples with a court order, or once someone is convicted of a felony or another serious crime, like 4th degree sexual assault, patronizing a prostitute or stalking.

According to Sen. Darneille that can come too late. She cites the case of Anthony Dias, a Pierce County man who was convicted in 2008 of a series of rapes. “Some of those crimes were completely heinous. One of them involved holding three women hostage in a home and repeatedly raping, raping, raping, raping.”

During his crime spree Dias had been arrested on an unrelated charge. Sen. Darneille says if police had been able to take a DNA sample then, they might have been able to stop him sooner.

Legislation that would allow DNA samples to be collected on arrest has been before the legislature three times, most recently in 2012. Sen. Darneille said she plans to file it again in January 2014. 

Civil libertarians say they will fight the bill on the grounds that it’s an unwarranted invasion of privacy. “Taking DNA is a highly invasive search that goes way beyond identification,” said Shankar Narayan, Legislative Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. He said DNA samples give the government access to a person’s “susceptibility to diseases, character traits, parentage, kinship, perhaps even predisposition to a particular sexual orientation.”

If the bill passes, the ACLU would consider challenging it in court, Narayan said. “Given that Washington has a long history of protecting privacy rights zealously, and our Supreme Court has tended to support that, we think that this law would be unconstitutional in Washington.”

Even if the US Supreme Court has ruled to uphold a similar law, it could still be struck down in Washington. Both sides agree that Washington state Constitution has stronger privacy protections than the US Constitution.