By Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - The Supreme Court signaled on Monday that it may review whether law enforcement officials may collect DNA samples from people who have been accused, but not convicted, of serious crimes.
Chief Justice John Roberts put on hold an April 24 decision by a divided Maryland Court of Appeals overturning the 2010 rape conviction of Alonzo Jay King.
A lower court had sentenced King to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he was arrested for assault in 2009 and police used his DNA to link him to an unsolved 2003 rape.
The police who collected the DNA in 2009 did so without a warrant, and the Maryland appeals court said King's expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment outweighed the interests of the state.
Maryland's DNA Collection Act allows law enforcement to take samples from people arrested for violent crimes, attempted violent crimes, burglary or attempted burglary.
Roberts agreed that there was a "fair prospect" the Supreme Court would reverse the April decision, and that the decision subjected Maryland to "irreparable harm."
He said the decision conflicted with three other courts that have upheld similar laws, and "implicates an important feature of day-to-day law enforcement practice" in half of all U.S. states and the federal government.
Roberts also said DNA samples from people who have been arrested have led to 58 criminal prosecutions in Maryland from 2009 to 2011.
"Crimes for which DNA evidence is implicated tend to be serious, and serious crimes cause serious injuries," Roberts wrote. "In the absence of a stay, Maryland would be disabled from employing a valuable law enforcement took for several months - a tool used widely throughout the country."
Stephen Mercer, King's lawyer at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said the Supreme Court's ruling was only a preliminary round.
"We continue to believe the court in the end will vindicate the Fourth Amendment rights of Mr. King and all Marylanders in their genetic privacy," Mercer said.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler applauded Roberts' decision in a statement.
"This stay will allow Maryland the uninterrupted use of this critical modern law enforcement tool that helps police and prosecutors solve some of Maryland's most serious violent crimes," he said.
The full Supreme Court is expected to take up Maryland's appeal in its upcoming term, which begins in October.
Each Supreme Court justice is assigned one or more circuits from which to handle emergency appeals and other matters. The 4th Circuit includes Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
The case is Maryland v. King, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12A48.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)