DNA Samples Are a Big Invasion of Privacy

Andrew Cohen, writing at The Atlantic, disagrees with a former Supreme Court justice's argument that taking a person's DNA is less intrusive than looking through one's personal papers.

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President Obama awards Justice John Paul Stevens the Presidential Medal of Freedom in May 2012. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Privacy is a controversial concept these days, especially since the recent Supreme Court decision allowing DNA samples to be taken during certain arrests. Andrew Cohen writes at The Atlantic that not all personal property is equal. He disagrees with former SCOTUS Justice John Paul Stevens, who recently spoke about the case.

John Paul Stevens, the avuncular former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, gave an interesting speech yesterday at the American Constitution Society Convention in Washington, D.C. ... he also weighed in on Maryland v. King, the Court's recent decision to permit states to swab DNA from suspects as as a "reasonable booking procedure" under the Fourth Amendment.

The speech isn't long and you can read it for yourself [pdf] to come to your own conclusions about where Stevens comes down on the intersection of old doctrine and new technology. But there was one sentence, near the end of the presentation, that struck me. Stevens said:

It seems to me that taking a DNA sample -- or a fingerprint sample -- involves a far lesser intrusion on an ordinary person's privacy than a search that allows an officer to rummage through private papers.

Now, I am ordinarily a big fan of Justice Stevens. But this strikes me as crazy talk. The DNA search takes a moment, it is true, and in that sense (and perhaps that sense alone) it is less intrusive than a search through someone's purse or briefcase. But the results of a DNA test are then compiled and held by the government, presumably forever, while the "results" of the bag search are quickly forgotten if they reveal no evidence of criminal conduct ...

Read Andrew Cohen's entire article at The Atlantic.

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