The state’s highest court ruled today that investigators do not need a search warrant to conduct DNA testing on a lawfully-seized unknown sample, rejecting an argument that the DNA profiles used by law enforcement reveal private information such as genetic traits and medical conditions.
The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the 2012 conviction of Manuel Arzola, 46, who is serving a seven-year prison term for stabbing another man in Chelsea after the victim denied his request for money or cigarettes. Among the evidence at trial was a bloodstain on Arzola’s shirt, which was lawfully seized at the time of his arrest; that stain was subjected to DNA testing that revealed it had come from the victim.
On appeal, Arzola – and the American Civil Liberties Union – claimed that the DNA evidence should have been suppressed because the testing was conducted without a search warrant and could have revealed genetic dispositions toward medical conditions and other private information.
“This decision is grounded in science, not science fiction,” Conley said. “The DNA profiles we use in law enforcement do not reveal any personal information beyond identity and gender. It’s ironic that any party would seek to limit its use in Massachusetts courts when it’s as reliable exonerating the innocent as it is convicting the guilty.”
A State Police chemist used a standardized testing method, comparing 16 loci – or allele locations along a strand of DNA – from the bloody shirt to the same loci in the victim’s and defendant’s DNA profiles. Those 16 loci were the ones recommended for comparison by the FBI and commonly used in forensic DNA analysis. The criminalist opined at trial that the odds against the bloodstain coming from any Hispanic person other than the victim were one in 76.98 quadrillion.
In the 21-page decision, Chief Justice Ralph Gants cited a recent Supreme Court decision ruling that DNA sampling is an acceptable booking procedure, just as photographing and fingerprinting are.
“[W]hen limited to these 16 loci, DNA analysis ‘does not show more far-reaching and complex characteristics like genetic traits,’” Gants wrote, citing the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Maryland v. King. “Apart from the source’s sex, the DNA analysis of the unknown sample taken from the defendant’s lawfully seized shirt revealed nothing more than the identity of the source, which is what an analysis of latent fingerprints would have revealed (albeit with less accuracy) had they been found on the clothing …. Although we recognize that the science of DNA analysis may evolve and enable DNA profiling to uncover from these loci information more personal than the identity and sex of its source, the loci tested in this case ‘are not at present revealing information beyond identification’ and sex.”
Separately, the high court found no error in the procedure by which Chelsea Police detectives created and presented a photo array from which the victim picked the defendant.
“Chelsea Police followed best practices to the letter,” Conley said. “They created a photo array with seven ‘filler’ photos of individuals who matched the defendant’s general age, height, weight, and complexion. The detective who presented the array was not part of the investigation and didn’t know who the suspect was. This was exactly what we ask of our police partners in eyewitness identification cases.”
Assistant District Attorney Donna Patalano, an appellate prosecutor who serves as the DA’s Chief of Professional Integrity and Ethics, argued the case before the SJC. Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Walsh tried the case to a conviction.