WASHINGTON -- A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that police may take DNA samples as part of a routine arrest booking for serious crimes, narrowly upholding a Maryland law and saying the samples can be considered similar to fingerprints.
"DNA identification represents an important advance in the techniques used by law enforcement to serve legitimate police concerns for as long as there have been arrests," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 5 to 4 ruling.
The decision overturned a ruling by Maryland's highest court that the law allows unlawful searches of those arrested to see whether they can be connected to unsolved crimes. The federal government and 28 states, including Maryland, allow taking DNA samples.
The court split in an unusual fashion. The dissenters were three of the court's liberals, and conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who amplified his displeasure by reading a summary of his dissent from the bench.
"The court has cast aside a bedrock rule of our Fourth Amendment law: that the government may not search its citizens for evidence of crime unless there is a reasonable cause to believe that such evidence will be found," Scalia said from the bench.
He added: "Make no mistake about it: Because of today's decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason."
Scalia was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Kennedy wrote that the decision was more limited than that: DNA can be taken from those suspected of "serious" crimes. He said that police have a legitimate interest in identifying the person taken into custody and that the DNA samples could make sure that a dangerous criminal is not released on bail.
"By comparison to this substantial government interest and the unique effectiveness of DNA identification, the intrusion of a cheek swab to obtain a DNA sample is a minimal one," Kennedy wrote. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito.
The challenge to the Maryland law was brought by Alonzo Jay King Jr., whose DNA was taken after a 2009 arrest for assault and used to connect him to an unsolved rape.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, D, said in a statement: " Today's Supreme Court ruling is important because it confirms an important weapon in our arsenal to fight violent crime in our state.
DNA collection has been a very effective new tool in our efforts to save lives by reducing violent crime and resolving open investigations."