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Dakota County wins challenge to DNA collection rule

The Dakota County Sheriff's Office has resumed collecting DNA samples from people arrested for certain violent crimes after winning a challenge to the practice in the Minnesota Supreme Court.

State law has, since 2005, required law enforcement agencies to collect DNA samples — a cheek swab, in practice — from adults and juveniles who have been arrested and have had a judicial probable cause determination on a charge of committing murder, manslaughter, assault, robbery, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, criminal sexual conduct, incest, burglary or indecent exposure. The law applied the DNA collection requirement before an individual was convicted, however, which led to a constitutionality challenge. In 2006, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the statute was unconstitutional.

"After which, all sheriffs in our state ceased to collect DNA samples from arrestees," explained Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.

The law itself, however, was never repealed.

"That's not uncommon," Backstrom said.

Then, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling on a Maryland statute that Backstrom said is "substantially similar" to Minnesota's, declaring it was constitutional. Backstrom said that it was late in 2015 that it came to his attention that the Maryland case (Maryland v. King) might override the 2006 decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He said he did some research and, on June 10, 2015, issued his own opinion to Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie that Minnesota's DNA collection law was once again valid and should be followed.

That was the opening Leslie needed. Later that month, Dakota County issued a news release stating that the Sheriff's Office was in the process of training staff on DNA collection procedures. Theirs was the only sheriff's office in the state to resume the practice, and they remain in that position still.

"I think the other counties are watching (to see what happens)," Leslie said.

After the 2015 decision, what happened was that several people challenged the practice in criminal court. Leslie said that there were 53 cases where a judge prevented his office from collecting DNA before the county decided to appeal one. In that same time period, Leslie said, his office did collect 60 DNA samples.

The county's appeal fell on a case against a Rosemount man, John David Emerson. Emerson's case began in January of 2016, when he was charged with second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon. Emerson's attorney convinced the district court to issue an order preventing the Sheriff's Office from collecting his DNA. That's when Backstrom, on Leslie's behalf, fought back.

"In our view, it's a very important statute that should be followed," Backstrom said, "and based upon my interpretation, I believe it is now valid."

He filed a petition for a writ of prohibition with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which the court denied. Backstrom next filed for a review by the Minnesota Supreme Court, which resulted in a reversal of the Court of Appeals decision.

"This is a good development for public safety in Dakota County," Leslie stated in a news release after the court's decision. "We were the first and only Sheriff's Office in Minnesota to once again begin the collection of DNA samples. We believed it was the right thing to do then and it's still the right thing to do. This is an important law which aids in the identification of individuals arrested for serious felonies who are housed within the Dakota County Jail and helps protect the safety of our communities."

The recent decision, which was delivered Jan. 11 of this year, doesn't close the door on future argument, and Backstrom and Leslie both expect another challenge. That's because the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision determined that only the manner in which Emerson's challenge was brought to the courts was improper. Emerson sought to block the DNA collection in criminal court, but the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that such a challenge has to happen in civil court, not criminal court.

"Ultimately, the Minnesota Supreme Court didn't rule on the constitutionality (of the law)," Backstrom explained. "... They didn't reach the ultimate decision, which we had hoped that they would."

An important tool

Leslie said that collecting DNA even before someone is convicted is an important policing tool.

"The whole purpose of this is to identify," he said. "All this does is takes (the DNA) earlier."

Those convicted and jailed already have DNA samples taken. The 2005 law, however, extends that practice to a select group of people before they're convicted. Samples are delivered to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and in the case of an individual being found not guilty or having charges dismissed, those DNA records must be removed.

But Leslie said that, in the meantime, DNA records can help law enforcement carry out their duty. For example, he said, if someone were arrested in Dakota County for one of the select crimes defined by the law, a DNA test might reveal the suspect is wanted in another location. It also helps law enforcement ensure they know the true identity of everyone they have in custody.

Leslie recognizes that being the only department in the state upholding the law puts him in a unique position. But he's willing to make the effort to lead the way for agencies across the state. Why? First of all, it's the law, he said. Second, the benefits outweigh the work required to keep fighting for the ability to follow that law.

"I felt it was in the interest of public safety," he said. "... I think this is worth it."

It also agrees with his personal philosophy of being proactive and taking on the issues that need to be addressed. DNA evidence is easier than ever to collect at crime scenes, the DNA collection process is less intrusive than fingerprinting, he said, and it's DNA evidence that is often responsible for seeing innocent people released from prison who were wrongfully convicted.

Backstrom also stressed the law's importance for public safety, noting that the state Legislature deemed it important when they enacted the law.

"We're going to proceed and follow the law," Backstrom said.