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High court to hear rights challenge to DNA collection

Police officers guarded the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in January.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Police officers guarded the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in January.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday will try to balance the rights of Americans who have not been convicted of a major crime to keep their DNA out of the government’s hands against the rights of crime victims to see justice done.

If the court rules for Alonzo King of Maryland, more than 1 million DNA profiles that have been stored in a federal database for matching with future crime scene evidence may have to be purged, advocates say. Others will never be collected, leading some repeat offenders to go free.

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Under consideration is a 2003 case in Salisbury, Md. A man wearing a hat and scarf and showing a gun had raped and robbed a 53-year-old woman in her home and then vanished into the night.

Almost six years later, King was arrested in a nearby county and charged with an unrelated assault. Taking advantage of a Maryland law that allowed DNA tests after felony arrests, police took a cheek swab of King’s DNA, which matched a sample from the 2003 Salisbury rape. King was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison.

But a Maryland court said they had to let him go.

King was not convicted of the crime for which he was arrested and swabbed. Instead, he pled guilty to the lesser charge of misdemeanor assault, a crime for which Maryland cannot take DNA samples.

The lower courts said it violated King’s rights for the state to take his DNA based on an arrest alone.

The Supreme Court is expected to make a final decision before summer.

Victims rights advocates defend the DNA testing laws.

‘‘The early collection of DNA prevents crime,’’ said William C. Sammons of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. ‘‘Had the recidivists been identified early in their career through arrestee collection, they would not have been able to commit the bulk of their crimes.’’

But privacy activists see letting police use DNA information without a warrant or a conviction as another loss for American privacy, with Americans’ genetic information held by the government eventually being used for other purposes.

‘‘Regardless of what the government does with the DNA sample and the limits it places on the sample’s use, all the highly personal data in it is in the government’s possession and outside the individual’s control,’’ said Jennifer Lynch, lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Getting DNA swabs from criminals is common. All 50 states and the federal government take cheek swabs from convicted criminals to check against federal and state databanks, with the court’s blessing. But 28 states and the federal government now also take samples from people who have been arrested for various crimes, long before their guilt or innocence has been proven.

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