Crime, Discarded Refuse, and DNA

Why I Support Smoking, or, Science is a Wonderful Thing: Discarded Refuse, DNA, and Child Rape 

By Ken K. Gourdin

When a then-13-year-old Sudanese girl showed up at Salt Lake City’s University of Utah Hospital ready to give birth and claimed that another Sudanese immigrant, a 52-year-old man, was the father of her baby, police obtained DNA from a cigarette butt discarded by the suspected child rapist and compared that DNA with a sample taken from the child who resulted from the rape.

DNA test results indicated that the suspect and the infant are related, and, on the basis of those results, police charged the suspect with rape.  The story can be found here, last accessed March 1, 2017:

I commented, “Smoking is a filthy habit which is harmful to one’s health, and, generally, I support smokers’ efforts to quit. Still, there are times when I’m glad people do smoke. This is one of those times. Science is a wonderful thing.”

I do not support the “rough justice” often dispensed informally by inmates against one of their fellows, but, as other commenters pointed out, pending his conviction (or perhaps a guilty plea) in due course, unless special arrangements are made for his incarceration, he is not going to have an easy time of it in prison.  Child rapists aren’t very popular there, to put it mildly.

I have visited Mexico several times (including studying abroad there for a term), and I have visited Europe twice.  I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the adjustments one must make when traveling or living abroad, including acclimating oneself to another justice system and to different social mores.

However, any sympathy I might have for this gentleman does not extend to condoning, in any way, what he did.  Even if his behavior (which, according to the above-linked story, includes threatening the girl’s family with harm unless she acquiesced to his wishes) somehow is acceptable in the culture from which he came, he had a duty to understand the different cultural mores and laws here and to conform his conduct to them.  If he is unwilling or unable to do so, then, quite frankly, he is not welcome here.

What of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that searches of one’s “persons, houses, papers, and effects” must be reasonable?  Do people have any remaining privacy interest in their discarded refuse?  This comes with the usual caveat: I am not a lawyer, and my views on the issues involved are simply general commentary on this specific case.  Anyone with questions about how the Fourth Amendment may apply to a specific situation should consult an attorney who is licensed to practice in the jurisdiction where the matter arose.

With that out of the way, the United States Supreme Court, in California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), held that a person who discards refuse (presumably in an area outside the cartilage, or the area immediately surrounding his home) retains no further privacy interest in items so discarded.  Thus, police seizure of such items does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In Greenwood, police, who suspected drug activity, twice asked sanitation workers to not commingle waste from Greenwood’s home with other waste workers collected.  Police then sifted through the waste on two separate occasions, finding evidence of drug activity and obtaining warrants to search the premises, which searches yielded evidence of drug crimes for which individuals then were charged.

Suspects in Greenwood contended that searches of their discarded refuse violated the Fourth Amendment.  The Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the searches, the evidence resulting therefrom, and the resultant convictions.  As it was in Greenwood, so it is in this case: in neither case do the people who discarded the refuse retain a privacy interest in it.  Thus, police did not violate this rape suspect’s rights by seizing a cigarette butt he had discarded and testing it for DNA.

While it does have its limitations, science, as I noted above, is a wonderful thing—no ands, ifs, or butts about it.


About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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