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Minn. sheriff settles lawsuit over collecting DNA from certain criminals

ROSEMOUNT, Minn.—The Dakota County sheriff's office will stop collecting DNA samples without a warrant from defendants charged with certain violent crimes under a deal reached with a Rosemount man who sued over the legality of the practice.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed suit in April against Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie on behalf of 68-year-old John David Emerson, who faced a second-degree charge of assault with a dangerous weapon following an alleged road rage incident in October 2015 in Hastings.

Leslie tried to seize a sample of Emerson's DNA at his first court appearance but without a warrant or a conviction in the case.

Leslie maintained DNA collection is an important tool for identifying people accused of violent felonies, but the suit argued that the practice is unlawful and unconstitutional.

To settle the case, Leslie agreed last week to allow the Dakota County District Court to enter an order against him forbidding DNA collection, and requiring the destruction of previously collected DNA samples.

"This is a win, not just for our client, but for the other people whose DNA was unlawfully collected, and for those whose rights would have been violated in the future," John Gordon, ACLU-MN executive director, said in a statement Monday. "Your DNA belongs to you, not to the government. ... The Dakota County sheriff is not above the law, the courts, or the Constitution. This settlement affirms those principles."

In June 2015, Dakota County became the first and only county in the state to resume collecting DNA, which was authorized by law in 2005 but halted a year later after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled it as an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Samples, taken through a cheek swab after a first court appearance, have been sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis and entry into databases for use in criminal investigations.

The county argued it could do so because of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a Maryland law that was similar to Minnesota's, and also because the law was never repealed.

Leslie stopped DNA collection last year after Dakota County District Court — following a challenge by Emerson's attorney — issued an order to restrain him from doing so.

But the sheriff resumed the practice this past January after the state's highest court ruled the district court exceeded its lawful authority. The court held that civil action was the proper way to challenge Leslie's enforcement of the DNA-collection statute.

In a joint statement Monday, Leslie and Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom said the settlement was reached "in recognition of the fact that the statute in question has statewide impact and that any potential costs associated with defending the law should be the responsibility of the state of Minnesota and not solely the responsibility of the citizens of Dakota County."

They said if the Legislature "wishes to have the constitutionality of this state law defended through civil litigation, it should pass a law providing for reimbursement for the county defending the constitutionality of the statute in civil litigation, or provide the Minnesota attorney general with the resources needed to defend the validity of the law."

The felony assault charge against Emerson remains pending. A jury trial is scheduled for April 2.

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