From DNA of Family, a Tool to Make Arrests

The Washington Post continues in its focus on DNA and the legal system. Following up on yesterday’s story, Ellen Nakashima reports:

He was a church-going father of two, and for more than 30 years Dennis Rader eluded police in the Wichita area, killing 10 people and signing taunting letters with a self-styled monogram: BTK, for Bind Torture Kill. In the end, it was a DNA sample that tied BTK to his crimes. Not his own DNA. But his daughter’s.

Investigators obtained a court order without the daughter’s knowledge for a Pap smear specimen she had given five years earlier at a university medical clinic in Kansas. A DNA profile of the specimen almost perfectly matched the DNA evidence taken from several BTK crime scenes, leading detectives to conclude she was the child of the killer. That allowed police to secure an arrest warrant in February 2005 and end BTK’s murderous career.

The BTK case was an early use of an emerging tool in law enforcement: analyzing the DNA of a suspect’s relatives. In the BTK example, police had a suspect and were looking to tie him to the crime. But now, states are moving to conduct familial searches of criminal databases, looking for close-to-perfect matches with DNA from crime scenes. A partial match with a convicted criminal could implicate a brother or daughter or father of the convict. Such searches, advocates say, constitute a powerful law enforcement tool that, experts say, could increase by 40 percent the number of suspects identified through DNA.

As things stand in some states, lab analysts who discover a potential suspect in this way may not be permitted to share that information with investigators. Such a policy, said William Fitzpatrick, a New York state district attorney, “is insanity. It’s disgraceful. If I’ve got something of scientific value that I can’t share because of imaginary privacy concerns, it’s crazy. That’s how we solve crimes.”

But the technique is arousing fierce objections from privacy advocates, who maintain that it turns family members into genetic informants without their knowledge or consent. They complain that it takes material collected for one purpose and uses it for another. And with the nation’s DNA database disproportionately comprised of minority offenders, they say, it amounts to placing a class of Americans under greater scrutiny merely because their relatives have committed crimes.

“If practiced routinely, we would be subjecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people who happen to be relatives of individuals in the FBI database to lifelong genetic surveillance,” said Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nonetheless, California, which maintains the world’s third-largest criminal DNA database with more than 1 million samples, will soon become the first state to adopt a protocol to allow for familial searches. Last week, Colorado performed a test run of familial search software on its criminal database. In Massachusetts, officials say they plan to develop a policy to allow familial searches.

Read the full story in the Washington Post

Comment:

Is this yet more erosion of both the Fourth Amendment and our medical privacy? Once again, we hear arguments that the ends justify the means. Some day, people will realize that they don’t agree with all of the ends, but by then, it may be too late — the databases and permissions to use them will have been long-established. And people will look at each other and ask, “How did you let it get this far?”

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