Court: DNA search is not an invasion of privacy

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that requiring people convicted of a crime to submit a DNA sample does not violate a constitutional right against an unreasonable search.

The ruling comes in the case of Randolph Johnson, who was charged in September 2008 with felony domestic assault. Before his trial, the state reached a plea bargain agreement with Johnson in which the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor domestic assault in exchange for a guilty plea.

Johnson was placed on probation, but fought the search for DNA as an invasion of privacy.

The Minnesota database of DNA can be used in crime investigation to match samples collected at a crime scene with the DNA stored in the database.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Justice Christopher Dietzen wrote in today’s opinion that people like Johnson “do not enjoy the absolute liberty to which every citizen is entitled. Just as other punishment for criminal convictions curtail an offender’s freedoms, a court granting probation may impose reasonable conditions that deprive the offender of some freedoms enjoyed by law-abiding citizens.”

Dietzen said the process for collecting the DNA from Johnson “is minimal, especially when compared to other intrusions Johnson is subjected to as part of his probation, including random urinalysis.” Authorities obtained the DNA by swabbing his mouth.

The Supreme Court also rejected Johnson’s complaint that if he’d been charged with a misdemeanor initially, he would not have been subject to a DNA search. Justice Dietzen says the fact a judge found probable cause to charge Johnson with a felony initially, indicates a behavior different from someone charged only with a misdemeanor.

But in a dissent, Justice Helen Meyer suggested the DNA obtained in a search contains private information beyond those of the person who was searched. “DNA is often referred to as the ‘blueprint’ for life,” she wrote. “‘DNA stores and reveals massive amounts of personal, private data about that individual,’ including information about that ‘person’s health, propensity for particular disease, race and gender characteristics, and perhaps even propensity for certain conduct.’ Genetic information is not only ‘information about us,’ but also ‘information about our parents, our siblings, and our children.’”

“Given the potential of DNA technology to expose extremely private information, I find these full-scale personal DNA searches highly intrusive,” Justice Meyer wrote in the dissent, joined by Justice Alan Page and Justice Paul Anderson.

Justice Dietzen, however, rejected the argument saying there’s no evidence “the state has or intends to use the biological specimens to extract highly personal genetic information.”

Today’s decision — available here. — came one day shy of the two-year-anniversary of a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling in the case that upheld the DNA search.

Related: A second Supreme Court decision also affirmed that requiring DNA of a juvenile charged with a felony does not violate the Constitution. Read the decision.

  • The Big Dog

    Thanks for posting Bob. Every year when I discuss bioethics I ask my students who is willing to let me take a cheek swab for DNA analysis? They all agree. Then when I tell them I will save their information and sell it later to law enforcement, insurance companies, potential employers, whoever wants to pay, the real discussion begins. I will save this and have my students read it.

  • Jim Shapiro

    In my not so humble opinion, put this one in the “No Brainer (correct decision)” column.

    Sure, there are several “yeah, but what if…” slippery slope counter arguments, but

    beneficio periculum praeponderat :-)