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Editorial: High court DNA ruling reflects technology today

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Facts are facts. And DNA is a factual identifier just like fingerprints and a photograph.

So says the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled Monday that taking DNA from someone arrested for a serious crime is permissible. The 5-4 ruling underscores a practice already in play in New Mexico – via Katie’s Law – and in 27 other states.

The majority opinion says that “when officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and they bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

New Mexico was one of the first states to enact such a law. Katie’s Law was passed in 2006 and expanded in 2011. It was named in memory of Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old New Mexico State University student who was raped and murdered in 2003. Her killer was identified three years later through DNA taken after New Mexico’s law was enacted and after he was convicted of another crime.

Gov. Susana Martinez, who as Doña Ana County district attorney lobbied for Katie’s Law and later as governor signed into law its expansion to include arrests for all felonies, said the ruling “establishes a strong legal basis for the specific version of Katie’s Law that is on the books in New Mexico.”

In January, President Barack Obama signed into law a national version of Katie’s Law introduced in 2011 by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

Monday’s decision overturns a Maryland appeals court that said it was illegal for that state to take, without approval of a judge, the DNA of a man during an unrelated arrest that led to his conviction for rape. Monday’s ruling reinstated the rape conviction.

The high court’s opinion said a DNA cheek swab does not represent an unreasonable intrusion of a person’s privacy. Dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia raised fears that DNA testing might expand to other areas of life, for instance during airport scans and public school enrollments.

But the court recognized that advances in technology are an integral part of today’s society and can be used to identify criminals – and equally to exonerate people who may be wrongfully charged or convicted of a crime. The opinion points out that DNA is “far superior” to fingerprinting.

With facial recognition scans coming soon to an ATM near you, identification technology is on the march. The court made a good decision that reflects today’s realities.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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