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CA Supreme Court Authorizes “John Doe” Warrants Based on DNA

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In a recent ruling, the California State Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Paul Robinson, whose DNA matched a sample attached to a John Doe arrest warrant. These John Doe warrants are issued in California in cases where DNA evidence is found, but there is no way for investigators to link that DNA to a suspect. The warrant is then issued based solely on the DNA. Opponents of the John Doe warrants argue that the statute of limitations is rendered null and void, as these warrants for unnamed and therefore unidentified suspects can remain outstanding but active for many years. As dissenting Judge Carlos Moreno put it, the John Doe warrant is “a clever artifice intended solely to satisfy the statute of limitations until the identity of the perpetrator could be discovered.”

The Court’s opinion, however, held that DNA evidence was at least as descriptive, if not more, than the name of a suspect. They ruled, therefore, that the “arrest warrant in question described the defendant with sufficient particularity to avoid a violation of the warrant particularity requirement of our state Constitution.”

Assuming that the DNA evidence is properly stored and can remain available for retesting in cold cases that are re-opened based on these John Doe warrants, the argument that they are equivalently particular to a named suspect seems reasonable. But it must also be acknowledged that the tactical use John Doe warrants to extend the statute of limitations could lead prosecutors down a slippery slope.

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