November 9, 2012 / 10:30 PM / 7 years ago

Supreme Court takes up DNA and sentencing cases

(Reuters) - The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to consider whether a state may collect DNA samples from people who are arrested but not yet convicted of violent crimes, in a case that may have national implications for law enforcement.

Maryland is appealing an April 24 decision by the state Court of Appeals overturning the 2010 conviction and life sentence of Alonzo Jay King for a rape committed seven years earlier, and prior to his 2009 arrest for assault.

A DNA sample taken following that arrest without a warrant had linked him to the earlier crime.

In overturning King’s conviction, the Maryland appeals court said the state’s DNA Collection Act violated the ban on unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That Maryland law lets police take DNA samples from people arrested for violent crimes, attempted violent crimes, burglary and attempted burglary.

In July, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts put that lower court ruling on hold, allowing the law to remain in effect, while Maryland appealed the King case.

Roberts said at the time that there was a “fair prospect” that the Supreme Court would reverse the ruling, and that the ruling subjected Maryland to “irreparable harm.”

The chief justice said the court of appeals ruling conflicted with three other courts that had upheld laws similar to Maryland’s DNA collection law.

He also said the appeals court ruling had national implications because it would, if upheld, prevent the FBI from getting the samples for a national database.

Collecting DNA samples “implicates an important feature of day-to-day law enforcement practice” in half of all U.S. states and the federal government, Roberts said.


The Supreme Court on Friday also accepted an appeal in a second criminal case, agreeing to decide whether a convicted defendant might face a longer prison term simply because federal sentencing guidelines had changed since the time of the offense.

At issue are “ex post facto” limits in the U.S. Constitution. These forbid state and local governments from retroactively changing punishments that could have been applied to activity that predated a change in the law.

The case involves a challenge by Marvin Peugh to a 70-month prison term he had received for his 2010 bank fraud conviction over loans for two farming businesses he had run with his cousin, in a scheme that prosecutors said had begun 11 years earlier.

Peugh said he should have been sentenced under the 1998 sentencing guidelines in effect at the time of the offense, which called for a maximum 46-month prison term, rather than the 2009 guidelines, where 70 months was the shortest recommended term.

But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago disagreed. It said there was no ex post facto violation because the guidelines are advisory.

In his appeal, Peugh said five other federal appeals courts had rejected this reasoning, and believed the proper test was whether retroactive application of the sentencing guidelines created a significant risk of longer prison terms.

Though sentencing judges need not follow the guidelines, which could lessen this risk, Peugh said the Supreme Court has required judges to take them into account, and ensure there is a sufficiently compelling justification for any deviation.

The Supreme Court is likely to hear oral arguments in both cases early next year, with decisions to follow by the end of June.

The cases are Maryland v. King, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-207; and Peugh v. U.S., U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-62.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and David Brunnstrom

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