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State Supreme Court OKs 'John Doe’ warrants based on crime-scene DNA

January 25, 2010 |  1:56 pm

The California Supreme Court ruled 5-2 today that prosecutors may get around legal deadlines by filing arrest warrants based on DNA left behind at a crime.

The ruling, written by Justice Ming W. Chin, also upheld the conviction of Paul Eugene Robertson for sexual offenses even though prosecutors obtained a DNA "match" after Robertson's DNA had been illegally placed in the state's DNA offender database.

Sacramento prosecutors filed an arrest warrant for "John Doe, unknown male," on Aug. 21, 2000, four days before the legal deadline or statute of limitations for filing charges in the case. Prosecutors attached a DNA profile to the warrant from evidence left at the crime.

Although Robertson's DNA had been "mistakenly" entered into the database, the errors that led to the collection of his blood did not require the court to throw out the evidence, Chin wrote.

The court majority said the use of DNA profiles to identify unknown suspects in arrest warrants was valid.

"We conclude that, when there is no more particular, accurate or reliable means of identification available to law enforcement, an arrest warrant or a complaint that describes the person to be arrested by a fictitious name and his unique DNA profile … satisfies the particularity requirements " of law, Chin wrote.

Justice Carlos Moreno, joined by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, dissented on the use of a "John Doe" warrant, calling it "a clever artifice intended solely to satisfy the statute of limitations until the identity of the perpetrator could be discovered."

"The arrest warrant that was issued a few days before the statute of limitations expired was not a true arrest warrant; it was a mere placeholder, because it did not authorize the arrest of any individual," Moreno wrote. "It was not until the warrant was amended to replace the name John Doe and the reference to the DNA profile with defendant's name that the warrant became effective and the prosecution commenced; but this was too late, because the statute of limitations had already expired."

-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco

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