Note: the title of this column may not make sense to a large portion of its readers. For those who have never picked up a copy of Hunter S. Thompson's infamous "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" or seen the Johnny Depp film of the same name – the title "Fear and Hoping in Knoxvegas" hopes to imbibe Thompson's pioneering of "gonzo journalism," a method which blends fact with fiction.
Considering this is an opinion page, the homage seemed apt.
And on the topic of opinion, a recent Supreme Court ruling has been buzzing around editorial pages across the country. According to Justice Anthony Kennedy and the rest of a 5-4 court majority, police have the right to collect DNA from arrestees in order to confirm an arrestee's identity or solve cold cases. Conversation has undoubtedly ensued.
The case began in 2009 after Maryland police arrested 26 year old Alonzo J. King Jr. for a felony assault. In accordance with a state law that permits the collecting of DNA from arrestees (note: the law is already enforced in 27 other states and the federal government), the officers swabbed King's cheek and entered the sample into state and federal databases of DNA from unsolved cases. King's DNA matched DNA collected from a previously unsolved 2003 sexual assault, and he was consequently convicted of the 2003 crime and sentenced to life in prison.
After appealing the ruling in the Maryland Court of Appeals, King was redeemed by argument from the Fourth Amendment, which requires probable cause for a search. The appellate court ruled that, as the police did not have probable cause to search King in regard to the 2003 crime, their search of him occurred unconstitutionally and rendered the resulting evidence moot.
Now, the Supreme Court has overturned that ruling, likening the cotton swab of an arrestee's cheek to a long-accepted practice of fingerprinting and suggesting that authorities do not need probable cause to collect DNA.
Some, including dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia, fear the measure signifies a serious blow to the American tradition of privacy.
But can you really consider your DNA private? Humanity leaves dead skin cells and lonely hair follicles littered across the various facets of our lives, a natural practice which suggests the exact opposite of private. Don't we flush DNA down the toilet?
If you've ever visited the Varsity Barber Shop or Campus Cutters on the same day I have, you've probably stepped all over my DNA, scattered across the floor by a defter man's scissors. And I'm not certain, but I believe an especially ambitious collector could gather some of my saliva from the sunflower seeds I spit out the car window on Cumberland the other day.
Of course, there is no denying that DNA holds some of our most intimate information. Cloning is real; anyone with extensive knowledge and instruction in stem cell research could conceivably cause some serious damage with one measly strand of hair. Thankfully, we do not live in some totalitarian dictatorship conspiracy seeking to duplicate its citizens for a body farm of clones. America is not a science fiction plot. With today's hawk-eyed media, no dubious scheme to manipulate our DNA would last long.
Another argument against the ruling contends that the nation's DNA databases are already overloaded, causing jams in the cogs of justice. The ensuing backlogs allow the DNA of convicted criminals to sit idly on the shelf while scores of innocent DNA is checked for no reason. Ultimately unnecessary testing of innocent arrestees, then, results in the extended freedom of already-proven-guilty convicts.
Although these instances rarely may occur, DNA testing and database management will likely improve with the maturation of this week's ruling. And if opponents of the decision are so concerned with persecution of the innocent rather than the guilty, those opponents should consider the man hours of most police forces. How much time is spent investigating the innocent in the field? Surely that time commitment restricts the conviction of true criminals, but it's an accepted sacrifice in the pursuit of greater public security.
Justice Scalia, in his dissenting opinion, referenced the fight of the American founding fathers for greater public security against Great Britain's relentless invasion of privacy. "I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties," he wrote, "would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection."
George and Thomas and the rest of the gang were nothing if not proud, it's true. But even John Adams would have swallowed enough of his pride to leave room for a Q-Tip swipe on his cheek.