Within the Scope

Blogging on Administrative Law and the Public Sector

Saturday, January 03, 2009

DNA Case has Clues on Administrative Exhaustion and the RFRA

In a very interesting decision issued on Tuesday of this week, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit turned away the challenge of a federal prisoner to the FBI’s analysis of his DNA.

Russell Kaemmerling, the inmate, filed suit to enjoin application of the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act to him, on the grounds that it violated rights that were guaranteed to him under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA“). The DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act directs the Bureau of Prisons to collect DNA samples from inmates like Kaemmerling, and to forward them to the FBI for analysis and possible matching against evidence in unsolved cases. Kaemmerling asserted that while he did not object to the collection of the sample per se, he regarded the FBI’s review of the “building blocks of life” as “laying the foundation for the rise of the anti-Christ.”

Affirming a lower court’s dismissal of Kaemmerling’s suit (albeit with the instruction that it should be dismissed with prejudice), the appellate panel made two noteworthy points. First, Kaemmerling was not obliged to exhaust his administrative remedies through the Bureau of Prisons before filing suit, because the Bureau of Prisons was wholly without the power to either avoid collecting a DNA sample from him or to prevent the FBI from reviewing the same. Because of the clear directive of the statute, the panel concluded that this was the “rare case” where administrative exhaustion before filing a court action was neither useful nor required. The Bureau of Prisons simply could not offer relief to the inmate’s complaint.

Turning to the merits of Kaemmerling’s claim, the panel held that a review of Kaemmerling’s DNA did not burden the free exercise of his religion. As the panel reasoned, no religious exercise by Kaemmerling was restricted or impacted by a review of the sample by FBI scientists. Chief Judge David B. Sentelle summarized for the panel:
This case is instead more analogous to Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693 (1986), where the Supreme Court held that the state’s use of a Native American child’s Social Security number in determining eligibility for federal welfare benefit programs did not impair her parents’ freedom to exercise their religious beliefs, a tenet of which was that use of the number beyond her control would “rob [her] spirit.” The parents objected to a statutory requirement that state agencies “shall utilize” Social Security numbers “not because it [placed] any restriction on what [they could] believe or what [they could] do,” but because they believed use of the number, an entirely governmental act, would harm the child’s spirit. The Court concluded that the government’s use of the child’s Social Security number did not “in any degree” impair her parents’ freedom to believe, express, or exercise their religion, emphasizing that “[t]he Free Exercise Clause simply cannot be understood to require the Government to conduct its own internal affairs in ways that comport with the religious beliefs of particular citizens. . . . [A]ppellees may not demand that the Government join in their chosen religious practices by refraining from using a number to identify their daughter.”
The panel’s complete analysis is accessible here.