Friday, April 4, 2014

All Felonies are Serious Offenses: Ninth Circuit Upholds California DNA Collection Law

In October of last year, I wrote “Buccal Swab ‘Booking Procedures’: Lower Courts Struggle to Apply Maryland v. King,” a blog post outlining some potential problems with the reasoning in Maryland v. King, the landmark DNA collection case handed down by the Supreme Court last June.  At the time, I focused on federal district court interpretations of King, but appeals courts have also begun ruling on these cases.  On March 20, 2014, the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, issued an opinion in Haskell v. Harris upholding California’s broad DNA Collection Act.

Haskell arose from a challenge to California’s Proposition 69, which was approved by voters in November 2004 and codified at Cal. Penal code § 296(a)(2)(C).  This statute requires a DNA sample be taken from any person arrested for any felony, including an attempted felony.  The DNA collection occurs during booking, or as soon as possible thereafter, but in any case before the arrestee is released from State custody.  The law does not require a judicial officer to determine probable cause before the sample may be entered into a database, and the State of California may retain the sample indefinitely, even if the individual is acquitted or never charged.

The lead plaintiff in this case, Lily Haskell, was arrested for allegedly trying to free a prisoner at a peace rally.  She was taken into custody and ordered to provide a DNA sample, and after she cooperated she was not charged.  The other plaintiff, Reginald Ento, was arrested for possession of stolen property, a sample was taken, and he was released and all charges dropped.  They sought an injunction under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, which the trial court denied.  In February 2012, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court in an opinion by Judge Milan Smith (who would write a separate concurrence to the en banc court’s later decision), and the case remained at the Ninth Circuit for two years, held in abeyance while the Court waited for Maryland v. King to be handed down.

The statute at issue here is much broader than the one the Supreme Court considered in King, both in the broad sweep of offenses covered by the law and in the narrow protections it offers arrestees.  Notably, had Haskell or Ento been arrested in Maryland, their DNA could not have been kept in the state database.  First, neither charged crime would have been considered a “crime of violence” under Maryland state law Second, Haskell was never charged and Ento’s charges were all dropped, which would have required Maryland to expunge the samples.

Haskell, then, has provided the first opportunity for a federal court of appeals to apply the holding of Maryland v. King to a broader statute.  Unsurprisingly, in a per curiam opinion, the Court upheld the California statute against a facial challenge, though it remanded the case so that plaintiffs could raise an as-applied challenge.  It reached this decision quickly and without much discussion, as even the plaintiffs’ attorney conceded that the law could be constitutionally applied to some felony arrestees.

More notable, however, was Judge Smith’s concurrence.  He concurred in the majority’s disposition, but wrote separately to emphasize that “California’s DNA collection law is materially indistinguishable from the Maryland law upheld in [King]. . . the purported distinctions that Plaintiffs identify are illusory.”  He identifies four distinctions between the two laws and explains why each of these distinctions were not relevant to the Supreme Court in King.

First, the plaintiffs argued that King only applied to “serious offenses”, that is, crimes of violence, burglary, or attempts at either.  Judge Smith first questioned this distinction, noting that “a felony is, of course, a serious crime” – all felonies can be considered “serious offenses.”  Beyond that, however, the Court’s reasoning in King simply did not lend itself to distinguishing one type of crime from another.  The State’s interest is the same in every case, “identifying the arrestee not only so that the proper name can be attached to his charges but also so that the criminal justice system can make informed decisions concerning pretrial custody.”  Indeed, the King majority pointed out that “people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals” – Timothy McVeigh was found by a state trooper who noticed he was driving without a license plate (not a felony). 

Second, plaintiffs argued that California (a) could not constitutionally collect DNA from arrestees who are never charged, and (b) that a judicial officer should determine probable cause before a sample can be analyzed, as is the case in Maryland.  Judge Smith noted that the arrest itself permitted Maryland (and so, California) to collect DNA, and that the Court did not care what the State did after arrest The government’s identification interest “attaches when the individual is brought into custody,” regardless of what happens next.

Finally, the plaintiffs objected to California’s reluctance to expunge DNA samples absent a conviction –Maryland is required to expunge samples automatically absent a conviction Judge Smith pointed out that the Supreme Court in King hardly mentioned expungement, and concluded that it was not constitutionally relevant to the Fourth Amendment question After all, the “search” at issue was the buccal swab itself, and the “minor intrusion” of a buccal swab is unaffected by what happens at expungement.

In conclusion, though lower courts were the first to struggle to apply King, federal appeals courts have also been faced with the mismatch between the Supreme Court’s narrow holding and its broad reasoning.  We should not be surprised to see more circuit courts follow Judge Smith’s lead, adopting the Court’s broad rationale rather than its narrow holding.  Practitioners should be aware of this dichotomy and tailor arguments either towards a broad analysis-based reading (in favor of the State) or a narrow holding-based reading of the case (in favor of defendants).  Though courts have reached mixed interpretations of King, they usually favor the former analysis-based reading, to the benefit of the government.

Ryan Watson
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

1 comment:

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