Balancing versus Categorizing in Maryland v. King

The arrestee DNA case of Maryland v. King offers the Supreme Court the opportunity to address a fundamental issue of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. The Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” According to the briefs of Maryland and the United States, the established mode of ascertaining reasonableness is an ad hoc “totality of the circumstances” balancing of interests. The major individual interests would seem to be in keeping information about one’s identity and presence at certain locations private, and the dominant government interests are in investigating and solving cases.

These briefs rely on cases that balanced state and individual interests related to searches in limited circumstances–to create or mark the bounds of new, categorical exceptions, or to subject probationers and parolees to searches without a warrant or any well-defined categorical exception to the warrant requirement. Like most lower court cases on arrestee DNA sampling, the briefs do not explain why balancing should apply to DNA testing before conviction. Rather, they seem to assume that the reasonableness of searches flow from an immediate balancing of interests.

The competing, and more traditional view, presented in Alonzo King’s brief, is that it takes a categorical exception to permit a search without a valid judicial warrant. This brief argues that DNA sampling does not fall under an established exception to the general requirement of a search warrant and that ad hoc balancing is not the norm in determining the reasonableness of a search.

A critical case in this regard is Samson v. California, 547 U.S. 843 (2006). There, the Court held that parolees had no protection from warrantless searches to uncover evidence of crimes. It did so without purporting to create a new exception to this requirement. Moreover, it is hard to discern a satisfactory basis for such an exception. All the previous exceptions rest on the presence of a government interest above and beyond the discovery of evidence that would be useful in a criminal case against the target of the search (such as the government’s role as an employer in maintaining a drug-free workforce), an unusually pressing need to dispense with a warrant (as in a limited investigatory stop to acquire information about what appears to be an imminent or ongoing crime), or government conduct that is a milder invasion of personal liberty or privacy than a canonical search or seizure of the person (such as a limited pat down of the individual’s outer clothing). Writing for the Samson Court, however, Justice Thomas reasoned that because parole is “an established variation on imprisonment” with an express condition that the parolee is subject to warrantless searches, “petitioner did not have an expectation of privacy that society would recognize as legitimate.” Id. at 852. Such language normally means that government conduct does not rise to the level of a search. If Samson had no reasonable expectation of privacy, then there was no search under Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), and hence no need to create an exception to the rule that a search is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant  Thus, at least one prominent commentator (Kerr 2012, p. 318) reads Samson as eliminating the per se rule rather than creating a new exception. I tend to think that the Court is simply vacillating, with no guiding principles, between the two theories of reasonableness–the one that starts with warrants and the more open textured one advanced by Maryland and the federal government.

There is a rich literature on these two theories, but one would not know this from perusing the briefs. Certainly, some Justices have questioned the preference for warrants for years. The King case could test whether their doubts have spread to a majority of the Court, leading to a more flexible but less predictable framework for applying the Fourth Amendment across the board.

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