Maryland's highest court has ruled that law enforcement officials can continue to collect DNA samples from some convicted criminals, effectively protecting a genetic database that was used recently to link a convicted murderer to three Anne Arundel slayings.

The decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, released Tuesday night, means that any defendant convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors must submit a DNA sample so law enforcement officials have access to it to investigate other crimes. The decision also sends back to Montgomery County Circuit Court the case of rape suspect Charles Raines.

The justices did not explain the basis for their ruling, leaving that to a formal opinion expected later.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who personally argued the state's case, said the ruling was a victory for crime victims as well as defendants who have been wrongly convicted of a crime.

"It helps us in law enforcement solve unsolved crimes, but it also helps exonerate a person if they are innocent," said Curran (D). "It is a very effective law enforcement tool, just like fingerprints."

But an attorney for Raines, who challenged the collection after authorities used his DNA sample to charge him in a seven-year-old Montgomery County rape case, said the high court's decision "is a blow to the privacy rights of every Marylander."

"When the court says the government can seize evidence for law enforcement purposes without any showing of individualized suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, it leaves the Fourth Amendment a hollow shell," said attorney Stephen Mercer, referring to the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.

Maryland has amassed more than 17,000 DNA samples since it began collecting them from certain convicts in 1995. The samples have been credited with solving scores of crimes, including the announcement Tuesday that DNA has linked convicted murderer Alexander Wayne Watson Jr., 34, to three homicides in Anne Arundel County.

In January 2002, Raines, then 38, was charged with assault, resulting in the revocation of his parole in a 20-year-old robbery case. He then had to submit a DNA sample because he was a convicted felon. Authorities used Raines's DNA to connect him to a 1996 rape in Montgomery County in which a women was choked, dragged into the bushes and sexually assaulted.

Raines's attorney challenged his arrest in the rape case because he submitted his DNA involuntarily. In January, before the case went to trial, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge S. Michael Pincus agreed with Raines, saying that "even a prisoner . . . retains an expectation of privacy in his body unless there is reasonable cause to violate his bodily integrity."

After appealing the ruling to the Court of Appeals, Curran argued that DNA collections met the constitutional requirements for a "reasonable" search because the intrusion was minimal. Curran also said that a person convicted of a crime gives up some privacy rights and that DNA, like a photograph and fingerprints, is an "effective identification factor."

Mercer, however, noted that DNA samples also contain genetic profiles and other sensitive information that he said should not be in the hands of the government. "There is a real potential for abuse when the government has this information about its citizens," Mercer said.

Maryland's law prohibits using DNA for anything other than investigating unsolved crimes. Curran said all 50 states, the District and the federal government collect DNA from some criminals.

In cases challenging DNA collection elsewhere in the country, most federal and state appeals have ruled similarly to Maryland's appeals court and have rejected Fourth Amendment arguments. But a three-judge panel of the San-Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with the argument in a case involving the federal DNA collection system. The full court is deliberating the matter.

When Maryland's law was approved by the General Assembly in 1994, it applied only to people convicted of sex crimes. The law was broadened in 1999 to include all violent crimes. In 2001, it was expanded to include all felons and those convicted of certain misdemeanors, such as burglary.