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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Varriale v. State: DNA Submitted Without Express Limitation on Consent Can be Used to Investigate Other Crimes

So holds Maryland's Court of Appeals (the state's court of last resort), in Varriale v. State. The opinion can be found here. Here is the abstract of the case provided by the Court:

The use of a buccal swab inside a person’s cheek to obtain DNA samples for testing is a search. Generally, a DNA sample may be obtained from an individual for testing by consent, pursuant to a warrant, or other court order. If a person’s DNA profile created from a DNA sample is in the lawful possession of the police for examination by consent and does not exceed the scope of the consent given to conduct the search, there is no Fourth Amendment violation. Moreover, the subsequent examination and use of the DNA in an unrelated investigation is not a search. Here, the defendant did not expressly limit the testing and/or use of his DNA. Any legitimate expectation of privacy that Varriale had in the identifying information contained in his DNA obtained from his cheek cells and penile area evaporated when his DNA was lawfully seized; it did not reappear when law enforcement officers compared his DNA sample to other samples and obtained a match.
Spencer Hsu at the Washington Post covers the case here. Additional coverage from the Baltimore Sun is available here.

To summarize the facts of the case: officers investigating a reported rape learned that George Varriale had been located near the scene of the crime. They asked for his consent to collect DNA evidence from his person, and Varriale agreed. While Varriale's DNA did not implicate him in the rape, his DNA ended up matching a sample collected in 2008 in a burglary. Varriale was charged with the 2008 burglary and after his motion to suppress the DNA evidence was denied, he entered a conditional guilty plea which preserved his rights to appeal.

Varriale is one of several recent cases that illustrate how evolving technologies can strain the acceptability of long-established concepts in Fourth Amendment law. An example of an earlier one of these cases is the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case, Riley v. California, which involved officers searching the cell phone of an arrestee. Under the long-established concept of searches incident to arrest, officers are permitted to search the person, and immediate surroundings of an arrestee, including containers within that area. In Riley, however, the Court held that this doctrine does not extend to the contents of a cell phone. Noting the wealth of information cell phones contain, the Court held that the search incident to arrest doctrine did not justify the search.

In Varriale, the concept being tested is consent. Well-established Fourth Amendment doctrine states that police officers may search somebody's person, vehicle, or house as long as the person voluntarily consents to the search. Officers are not required to inform the person that he or she has the right to refuse consent. Officers' searches, however, are limited based on the scope of the person's consent. For example, if a suspect consents to a search of her car, that does not mean that officers may search her house -- they would be required to ask that suspect's consent to extend the scope of the search to her house.

Varriale illustrates a broad approach to consent in the DNA context. Mr. Varriale signed a written consent form for the collection of DNA evidence which included the following clause:
I realize that if I do consent to a body search, that any evidence found to be involved in this investigation, being conducted by the Anne Arundel County Police Department can be used in any future criminal prosecution.
Varriale argued that the phrase "any evidence found to be involved in this investigation" limited the scope of the permissible search to the investigation into the suspected rape. The prosecution argued that the phrase "can be used in any future criminal prosecution" indicated that the officers' use of the DNA was not limited to the rape investigation.

The Court held that Varriale's consent to the search was enough to remove any reasonable expectation that officers would not use the DNA to investigate additional crimes. Rather than focusing on the language of the consent form, the Court centered its reasoning around the nature of DNA, and that DNA, like fingerprints, retains the same identifying information over time. The Court held that it was reasonable to expect that officers would retain the DNA sample for future use in investigating other cases, and noted that the defendant did not expressly limit the scope of his consent to the present case. Accordingly, Varriale did not have a reasonable expectation that officers would not use his DNA sample to investigate other crimes.

Officers are not required to tell suspects that they have the right to refuse consent. And Varriale establishes that officers are not required to describe the potential scope of the investigation that may be done into evidence submitted with consent. Instead, it is reasonable for suspects to expect that their DNA may be used for identification purposes in other cases since DNA information provides identification information that remains consistently accurate over time.

Does this broad approach to consent go too far? Suspects who are asked to submit samples of their DNA may be focused on the case at hand, especially if the suspects know that the case involves a crime like rape in which DNA will likely be crucial evidence. These suspects might not realize that state governments and investigating agencies retain DNA databases like fingerprint databases, and therefore may not realize that their consent may implicate them in other matters. Without a statement that the DNA evidence may be retained and used in other cases, suspects may expect that their DNA will be used only in the present investigation.

And while DNA may be analogized to fingerprints, DNA contains more information than fingerprints provide. For example, somebody's DNA may be a close, but not exact, match to another sample. Such a close match might indicate that the person whose DNA was collected is related to the person who provided the other sample. These so-called "familial" matches may be used to investigate crimes as well. For instance, had Varriale's DNA been a close match to a sample in the database, officers may have inquired as to whether Varriale had any close family members and investigated their potential involvement in the 2008 burglary. The wide scope of possible uses for DNA samples requires courts to stretch the assumption that those consenting to the collection of their DNA are truly aware of what their consent entails.

As DNA continues to become a more commonly-used tool to investigate crimes, I would not be surprised to see more cases like Varriale make their way through the courts. It will be interesting to see how other courts address the doctrine of consent in DNA cases, And if courts end up reaching different conclusions, I would not be surprised to see the Supreme Court ultimately take up this issue.

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