Seattle police detectives did not violate a suspected murderer's constitutional rights when they posed as lawyers and tricked him into licking...

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Seattle police detectives did not violate a suspected murderer’s constitutional rights when they posed as lawyers and tricked him into licking an envelope in order to obtain a sample of his DNA, the state Supreme Court has found.

The 6-3 decision, filed this morning, upholds the King County Superior Court conviction of John Nicholas Athan and could clear the way for police to use similar tactics in future investigations without worrying about the impacts on criminal prosecution.

In 2004, a jury found Athan guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 13-year-old Kristen Sumstad, whose body was found in a cardboard box behind a TV-repair shop in Magnolia in 1982. Athan was 14 at the time of the slaying. Two decades later, detectives linked Athan to the cold case using a ruse that became a controversial spark in a national debate over police versus privacy rights.

The detectives, posing as members of a fictitious law firm, invited Athan, a longtime suspect now living in New Jersey, to join a class-action lawsuit for overpaid parking tickets. After Athan licked an envelope they mailed to him and sent it back to police, his DNA was matched to a sample that had been recovered from Sumstad at the time of her death.

Athan was given a 10-year minimum sentence. His attorney fought the conviction, saying the police action to gather the crucial DNA evidence was illegal and violated Athan’s state and federal constitutional rights.

“No recognized privacy interest exists in voluntarily discarded saliva,” the court wrote in its ruling.

In a dissenting opinion, however, Justice Tom Chambers expressed concern over the majority opinion’s potential impacts on attorney-client relations.

“Washington law prohibits a nonattorney from holding himself or herself out as an attorney,” he wrote. “Permitting this unlawful and unethical conduct … undermines the … ability of all people to communicate freely with their attorneys without fear that the communications will be used against them.”

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com