Daron Dylan Wint is facing murder charges for the deaths of a couple, their son and their housekeeper after their bodies were found in a burning Washington, D.C., home, but the method police used to identify and arrest the man allegedly responsible for what have come to be known as the "D.C. mansion murders" raises questions about the balance between DNA collection and civil liberties and how the legality of DNA searches vary from state to state.
The night before Savvos Savopoulos, his wife Amy, their 10- year-old son Philip and their housekeeper Veralicia Figueroa were found dead, a pizza delivery driver left two pizza boxes at the front door of the home. Investigators found remains of eaten pizza in the remains of the house and performed DNA tests on those remains. The DNA matched Wint's, and the hunt was on.
Ultimately, he was apprehended and charged with first degree murder while armed. However, if the same fact pattern occurred in another state, the results might have been quite different. It was only because Wint's DNA was on file in CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the national DNA data bank that he was able to be identified and caught. It is not clear at which point in his long history with the criminal system Wint had his DNA collected. Every state allows for the collection of DNA after certain types of convictions, and Wint has been convicted of assault in both Maryland and New York. His DNA would likely have been in the system from one or both of these convictions.
However, some states allow for collection of DNA from people who have been arrested for a serious offense. There are 28 states which allow for such collection, along with the federal criminal justice system. Different states have different requirements, but two-thirds allow for the collection (usually via a mouth swab) after an arrest. Others allow the same after an arraignment where probable cause has been proven. There are still 22 states that do not allow for such collection at all.
The concern, at one point, was the legality of such collection of DNA. Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a person has a right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures." Many civil libertarians were concerned that this type of collection of DNA from someone who was arrested but not proven guilty violated the Constitution. If an arrest was made in error and such a seizure of DNA had been performed, hadn't that person's rights been violated?
The U.S Supreme Court answered this question in 2012. In Maryland v. King, a 5-4 majority held that "when officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment." Therefore, these types of DNA collection are constitutional.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing dissent and warned that "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 took an unusual step and read his dissent from the bench to underscore his dissatisfaction with the decision.
As technology continues to evolve, we see more and more instances where civil liberties seem to erode. The balance between the two is a delicate one, and both legislators and judges have the unenviable job of performing that balance. Here, the Supreme Court justices favored the benefits of DNA technology over the risk to civil liberties. Thanks to that decision, Wint may never have the opportunity to eat another pizza.
Heather Hansen is a partner in the O'Brien and Ryan law firm who has been named one of the 50 top female lawyers in the state by Pennsylvania Super Lawyers. Heather is also a national television and radio legal analyst and journalist who has appeared extensively on CBS News, Fox News, Fox Business Channel, Fox.com, CNN, HLN and Sirius XM radio. Her writing has appeared in Law360 and she has co-authored two chapters in medical texts regarding medical malpractice litigation. Follow her on Twitter at @imheatherhansen.