The Oral Argument in Maryland v. King — Part II

As noted yesterday, the argument that DNA profiling and database trawling for past crimes is or will be useful for pretrial release determinations intrigued several of the Justices. Justice Sotomayor spoke up:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: And I’m having a hard time understanding the bail argument.Because in my time, most bail decisions were made at the time of arrest. And here the arrest was in April and the results didn’t come up until August. … You don’t use it routinely for the bail determination.

MS. WINFREE: At this point, you’re absolutely correct, Justice Sotomayor. We don’t use it routinely for a couple of reasons. For one, as in Mr. King’s case, there has been in the past a more substantial delay in getting those results back. Our — our lab now is getting results between 11 and 17 days. … Now, of course, that wouldn’t be timely for that first bail determination, but the State under Maryland’s procedure certainly has the ability to go back to — to the judge and ask that … that bail determination to be modified. And in point of fact, … in California’s amicus brief, which was joined by the 49 other States and D.C. and Puerto Rico, they actually do cite two particular examples where [release or] diversion was revoked . …

The Deputy Solicitor General maintained that this use of the DNA would only grow:

MR. DREEBEN: [R]apid DNA will permit DNA identification to replace fingerprint identification because it’s far more accurate and it has far more utility in the secondary purpose of fingerprints, which is to match them to latent prints and solve crimes. … Any judge who is looking at a bail case would like to know: I have a guy who has been arrested on grand theft auto. He has no criminal history. Should I release him back on the street? Well, it’s a first offense, he has family ties; maybe yes. If that … defendant’s DNA came back and returned a cold case hit to a murder-rape, the judge would know he’s not such a good risk to be put back on the street.* [* Order of clause rearranged.]

In responding to this argument, counsel for Mr. King first seemed to concede that when DNA profiling and database trawling could be done rapidly, the system would become constitutional:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: There are two different, two different interests. One is we want to solve unsolved crimes; and the other is we want to be sure — we have someone in our custody and we want to be sure, before he is released back into the community, that he isn’t a person who has committed five violent crimes before that. Now, your brief says, well, the only interest here is the law enforcement interest. And I found that persuasive because of the concern that it’s going to take months to get the DNA back anyway, so they are going to have to release him or not before they know it. But if we are in a position where it now takes 90 minutes or will soon take 90 minutes to get the information back, I think that’s entirely different, because there you can find out whether — it’s just tied in with the bail situation, do you want to release him or not.

MR. SHANMUGAM: The touchstone of the analysis under the special needs doctrine is what was the primary purpose of the program at issue. And there is no evidence that pretrial supervision was a purpose of any of these.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: That’s because, that’s because we are not yet at a situation where it takes 90 minutes. Sure, it’s not going to do you any good if it’s taking four months or whatever it took in this case. But if it’s at the point where it’s 90 minutes, it would be critical to make that determination.

MR. SHANMUGAM: Well, Mr. Chief Justice, … the constitutional analysis may very well change at a later point. But I think it’s important to underscore that neither the State of Maryland nor the federal government identifies a single instance in which a pretrial supervision decision in their jurisdictions was altered as a result of the DNA test.

But a little later he qualified his position:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Counsel, so I am really worried about the question … that I think one of my colleagues asked. I agree completely that today it’s used primarily and almost exclusively for purposes of solving other crimes.* But let’s — is this — the question only because technology hasn’t moved fast enough? You said we have to look at the constitutional principles 5 years from now when they will use it to pull up a guy’s criminal history. Not unsolved crimes, but criminal history. Get to that day. … Tell me what the — why you would then say that would still be unconstitutional. [* Order and wording of sentences altered slightly.]

MR. SHANMUGAM: Justice Sotomayor, … the only other potentially applicable exception to the principle that warrantless, suspicionless searches are unconstitutional is the special needs exception, and that exception looks to the primary purpose of the program at issue. And the mere fact that DNA testing could be used for other purposes wouldn’t necessarily be dispositive of the inquiry. If the primary purpose of DNA testing is still to investigate unsolved crimes, the program would still not qualify under the special needs doctrine.

Then again, under questioning from Justice Kagan, he conceded that the multipurpose system could be constitutional:

JUSTICE KAGAN: Just suppose — I mean, I guess the question is, would this be unconstitutional? It’s not the world we are living in now, but let me — 10 years from now the government says, we are really switching over to a fingerprint system — to a DNA system and what that system is going to allow us to do, is it’s going to allow us to identify, and it’s going to allow us to bring up the old criminal history and it’s going to allow us to see whether there are also unsolved crimes that we can tag to this person and discover that he’s really, really dangerous. All right? And so the government puts that system into effect. Is it constitutional?

MR. SHANMUGAM: I think that it could be, and that would simply be because you would have a system where DNA testing is essentially being used as fingerprinting is being used today. But again I don’t think —

The difficulty the Justices experienced in receiving a definitive response to their vision of a multipurpose DNA database system exposes part of the soft underbelly of the so-called special needs doctrine. One might well ask why “the primary purpose” of a program that produces evidence for criminal investigations and prosecutions is so critical? And, if it is so crucial, may a state salvage a law struck down as unconstitutional (because it was intended and used only to generate evidence in unrelated matters against mere arrestees) by re-enacting it, continuing to use it for its previous primary purpose of generating evidence, adding a new statutory preamble, and also using it (like fingerprints) for one or more additional purposes (such as gathering appropriate information for a bail determination) proclaimed in a carefully crafted preamble?

I asked these questions 13 years ago (Kaye 2001). The so-called special needs exception to the ordinary requirements of probable cause and a warrant applies when the government can articulate special interests in a program that also generates evidence of wrongdoing. For example, the government’s special interest in jail security and inmate health and safety justifies most of the searches that the Deputy Solicitor General reminded the Court about in the opening of his argument. When the government’s sole interest is producing evidence with which to catch criminals and the search is a significant intrusion of persons, houses, papers, or effects, then the normal rule is that warrants and probable cause are required. This reflects a prior balancing of governmental and personal interests that allows some searches but constrains arbitrary or unjustified government action. When special interests are present, however, the prior balancing is incomplete, and the outcome of a more comprehensive balancing could be different, As a result, the normal rule demanding warrants and probable cause might not apply (Kaye 2013).

Under this “special interests” theory, balancing is appropriate whenever special interests are present, and whether the balance of interests favors the government or individual does not depend on whether evidence production is a primary, secondary, or tertiary purpose of the program of searches. Yet, since 2000, the “special needs” doctrine has been more complicated–and less coherent than the reconstruction sketched above. As King argued, special interests do not trigger balancing unless they are the “primary purpose” of the program.

At least, this is what the Court first announced in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000). However. Edmond was not a multiple-purpose case. For the single purpose of finding narcotics in vehicles, Indianapolis established a program in which police used dogs to sniff for drugs in vehicles pulled over in groups at fixed roadblocks. The Court previously had upheld brief, suspicionless seizures at highway checkpoints for the such singular purposes as combating drunk driving and intercepting illegal immigrants. In addition, it had ruled that walking a drug-sniffing dog around a properly seized vehicle was not even a search. Thus, both components of the program–the checkpoints and the dog sniffs–had withstood constitutional attack. Yet, the Edmond majority reasoned that these cases did not govern: “Because the primary purpose of the Indianapolis narcotics checkpoint program is to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing,” the special needs exception was unavailable.

But neither Edmond nor any other case has tried to apply the primary-purpose limitation to a program that plausibly serves two or more purposes. Would the Indianapolis program have been eligible for special-needs balancing had the city established roadblocks strictly to check for intoxicated drivers, and then, after waiting a decent interval, added a dog-sniff in parallel with the sobriety check?

To cope with the analogous situation envisioned in the questions from the Chief Justice and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, the Court has at least two stark choices. It could overrule Edmond and abandon the primary-purpose restriction, allowing special needs balancing as long as special interests actually are present. Or, it could engage in a slightly mystical search for the “primary” purpose of a truly multipurpose program.

But even if the special needs exception would apply in the future, the Chief Justice asked, what does it mean for the Maryland law today?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: How can I base a decision today on what you tell me is going to happen in two years? You say, in two years we will have this rapid DNA available, but we don’t now. Don’t I have to base a decision on what we have today?

MS. WINFREE: Well, that’s really only one component of our argument, Mr. Chief Justice, that certainly with respect to a bail determination we will be able to make it more rapidly at the time that rapid DNA comes into effect.

Whereupon Justice Scalia got in the last word during Maryland’s rebuttal argument. Expressing his reticence to uphold the Maryland program because of what it might become, he stated:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Yes, but if we believe that the purpose of it has much to do with whether it’s legitimate or not, you can’t demonstrate that the purpose is immediate identification of the people coming into custody. You just can’t demonstrate that now. Maybe you can in two years. The purpose now is — is the purpose you began your presentation with, to catch the bad guys, which is a good thing. But you know, the Fourth Amendment sometimes stands in the way.


1. David H. Kaye, The Constitutionality of DNA Sampling on Arrest, 10 Cornell J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 455 (2001), available at

2. David H. Kaye, A Fourth Amendment Theory for Arrestee DNA and Other Biometric Databases, 15 U. Pa. J. Const. L. No. 4 (forthcoming 2013), available at

Cross-posted to Forensic Science, Statistics, and the Law

2 thoughts on “The Oral Argument in Maryland v. King — Part II

  1. pvinegrad

    One additional thought on my proposed doctrine:

    The status of the person subjected to a warrantless sr or sz is highly relevant to the (objectively assessed) level of intrusiveness upon his/her rep. So, for example, an ordinary citizen has a far greater rep than does a person properly subjected to a Terry stop/sz and frisk/sr. And a Terry detainee’s rep is greater than that of a person, such as Alonzo King, who has been arrested for, charged with, and incarcerated for a felony.

    Alonzo King’s status — a status that would permit, among other things, a jailhouse visual strip search before entering general housing — establishes the de minimus level of intrusion caused by a Q-tip being swirled in his mouth. But subjecting an ordinaty citizen or a Terry detainee to this type of sr would change the level of intrusiveness because of their different status relative to the criminal justice system.

    On the other hand, the status of the person subjected to a warrantless sr or sz does not, by itself, alter the (objectively assessed) justifications proffered by the government. So, for example, the justification in King — to see if the arrestee is linked to a cold case and, in turn, determine if he/she would pose a safety risk to people working in the jail (if in custody) or to people on the street (if out of custody on bail or O.R.) — is not altered because a person’s status.

    The government would love to see if ordinary citizens, or Terry detainees, are linked to cold cases and, in turn, whether they pose a danger to society at large. Thus, the justification remains the same as arrestees like King. But the status of the person being sr changes and that results in a change in the balancing — balancing that determine 4th Am. reasonableness.

  2. pvinegrad

    The Court needs to harmonize the two 4th Am. clauses and revamp its doctrine as follows:

    1. All searches (sr) and seizures (sz) with warrants issued upon probable cause (pc) are reasonable;

    2. All warrantless sr and sz conducted with pc are reasonable if the legitimate government justifications outweigh the intrusion on a reasonable expectation of privacy (rep); and

    3. All warrantless sr and sz unsupported by pc are unreasonable unless (A) the government can establish that its justifications outweigh the intrusion on a rep, and (B) the exception is categorical and narrowly tailored to serve the justifications.

    Under this balancing regime, the level of intrusiveness and the justifications are evaluated objectively. The subjective feelings of the particular person subject to the search or seizure are irrelevant, as is the subjective purpose of the government official(s) conducting the sr or sz or authorizing a system of programatic sr or sz. Thus, the language in the preamble of a statute establishing a programatic sr or sz regime is an irrelevant expression of the subjective purpose of a legislator, and not a controlling factor regarding the objective justifications proffered by the government as part of 4th Am. balancing.

    Also, under this balancing doctrine, there is no need to determine if a particular sr or sz would serve a “special” governmental need, aside from evidence gathering, as any such need is subsumed in the objective analysis of the government’s justifications. Likewise, there is no need to ascertain the “primary,” “secondary,” or “incidental” purpose of the sr or sz. That nomenclature is replaced by an objective evaluation of the proffered justifications, regardless of their primacy.

    The King case should be evaluated under category 3. The McNeely DUI blood draw case pending before the Court is a category 2 case. So-called “special” needs cases, such as Edmond, Sitz, Florence, and Samson, are category 3 cases. Terry is also a category 3 case. The Bailey decision by the Court last month is also a category 3 case.

    Edmond can’t be intellectually differentiated from Sitz. And Justice O’Conner’s attempt to do so is nothing more than line-drawing based upon preferred policy, rather than doctrine-based substantive constitutional adjudication.

    Finally, with respect to the discussion of the bail justification at oral argument, it must be remembered that if the defendant is out of custody on bail or O.R. at the time the DNA results become available those results (to the extent they establish a link to a cold case) are highly relevant to a determination regarding revocation or modification of bail or O.R. status, in order to ensure the defendant’s appearance at trial and protect the public from the defendant. Given this legitimate justification, it is irrelevant that Rapid DNA analysis is not presently available.

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