Dakota County Sheriff agrees to stop its unlawful practice.
We often think of property as the things we own—our house, our car, our phone. Most people would agree that the U. S. and Minnesota Bill of Rights protect against unlawful search and seizure of these tangible things. But what right does the government have to your body—your blood and genetic information? These, too, are unequivocally yours—even more so than many of the other objects you own. But routinely, the government has undermined the rights you have to your very own body.
In April 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit on behalf of John Emerson to prevent his DNA from being unlawfully collected by the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department. This week, the case was settled, meaning Dakota County will once again have to respect the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures of genetic information.
Over a decade ago, in 2006, the Minnesota Court of Appeals invalidated a Minnesota statute that required law enforcement to collect DNA samples from people charged with certain crimes, even though they had never been convicted. The Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that that the practice violated both the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1 §10 of the Minnesota Constitution. While the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the U. S. Constitution does not prohibit the practice of warrantless DNA collection, that decision didn’t touch the Minnesota court’s holding that the practice still violates the Minnesota Constitution. Dakota County Sheriff Timothy Leslie took it upon himself to begin collecting DNA again. But when he tried to collect DNA from John Emerson without a warrant, the ACLU-MN sued on his behalf.
This is not a one-off event for the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department. When the sheriff arbitrarily decided back in 2015 to resume warrantless DNA collection, the department reportedly collected 60 DNA samples before the courts limited the practice.
The integrity of our judicial system is only as intact as the integrity of our policing and investigative practices. Law enforcement officials do not get to take your property based on mere suspicion. They also do not get to take your DNA based solely on suspicion. They do not get to ignore people’s Constitutional rights just to collect information that they think might help them solve crimes sometime in the future.
Law enforcement officials have a duty and responsibility to protect the rights of all people—they do not create the law and they are not above the law.
We saw a similar conflict earlier this year in Utah. A nurse in Salt Lake City was arrested for refusing to draw blood from an unconscious patient, relying on a state law that blood cannot be taken from an unconscious patient without a warrant. The incident received nationwide attention and the Utah officer was fired for his rough treatment of the nurse and violation of protocol.
The Utah nurse, Alex Wubbel, shared with reporters, “A blood draw, it just gets thrown around there like it's some simple thing. But blood is your blood. That's your property.”
Similarly, your DNA is your property. Minnesota courts have agreed. And the ACLU will continue to hold law enforcement officials accountable when they violate your rights.