ANNAPOLIS, Md. — After police used a new technique to arrest a man suspected of being the Golden State Killer, a Maryland legislator proposed a law that would prohibit use of a familial DNA database for the purpose of crime-solving.
House Bill 30, sponsored by Del. Charles Sydnor, D-Baltimore County, seeks to prohibit searches of consumer genealogical databases for the purpose of identifying an offender in connection with a crime through their biological relative’s DNA samples.
In 1994, the state enacted the Maryland DNA Collection Act, which authorized the gathering of DNA for an official investigation of a crime, to identify human remains, and to identify missing persons, among other purposes.
In 2008, Chapter 337 amended the Collection Act to allow the state to gather and retain DNA from people arrested for burglary or violent crimes at the time of their arrest.
The 2008 law also prohibited searching the statewide database for DNA collected from a relative to identify a crime suspect.
D.C. and Maryland are the only two jurisdictions in the country with laws barring searches for familial DNA and partial match analysis, and Maryland was the first to ban searches for blood relatives statewide, according to written testimony from Sydnor, the bill’s sole sponsor.
Such searches may also mean that over 50 percent of Marylanders can be identifiable, even if an individual potentially under scrutiny hasn’t voluntarily submitted their DNA to any database, according to Natalie Ram, an assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore.
Four other states — California, Colorado, Texas and Virginia — have developed procedures for using these databases and partial familial matching, but only after all other leads have proved unsuccessful.
Cold cases solved
Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested in connection with the crimes of the Golden State Killer — nicknamed after years of killings and attacks in California — and was charged with 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping by police after they uploaded DNA from the crime scenes to a searchable open database, where several of his distant family members had also uploaded their genetic profiles.
On Friday, Alaska State Troopers, using similar genetic technology, arrested Steven Downs, a suspect in the 1993 killing of Sophie Sergie, after hearing about the Golden State Killer case.
DNA discovered during the initial investigation into Sergie’s slaying was uploaded into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System — also known as CODIS — a genetic database used for exploring leads from cases where biological evidence was recovered, according to Col. Barry Wilson, director of the Alaska State Troopers.
Matches made among profiles in the database can be used to link crime scenes together.
The lab matched DNA from the crime scene to a female relative of Downs, and police tracked him down in Maine with a warrant for his DNA, Wilson said in a press conference.
In fewer than 24 hours, the DNA found at the crime scene in 1993 was matched to Downs, according to Wilson.
Legislation prohibiting searches of statewide databases for the purpose of identifying offenders through familial DNA already exists in Maryland, but Sydnor’s bill aims to extend the ban over to popular consumer genetic databases such as 23andMe or ancestry.com, where suspected criminals could be identified through family members who’ve uploaded their data to the websites.
Most people who use consumer genetic databases are using them for a narrow set of goals, such as entertainment or medical reasons, not for law enforcement purposes, and having their DNA profiles searched is something that goes above and beyond their expectations of what that data use is, said Jessica Vitak, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies.
‘Familial searches are inappropriate’
“Because DNA is genetic and is shared between relatives, your privacy could be violated by somebody other than you, and in many cases, this data could be used against you … because the control of data about you is in other people’s hands,” Vitak added.
Searching a familial database to find offenders through people biologically related to them can match DNA from people as distant as ninth-degree relatives, or fourth cousins, to those under scrutiny for crimes, Ram said.
Incorrect matches can also lead to improper investigations of people who have not committed any crimes, according to Ram.
“Familial searches are inappropriate, no matter what,” Ram said.
In written testimony, Sydnor added that noncriminal individuals participating in consumer genetic database websites are not knowingly subjecting themselves to the potential “genetic dragnet” associated with law enforcement obtaining their information from the database.
The legislation faces opposition from the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, as law enforcement officials use statewide DNA databases for identifying potential criminals.
Genetic genealogy is the practice of using science to find relatives of a person, or, in the context of an investigation, a perpetrator, according to written testimony from the Maryland Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs’ Associations.
“This science can effectively reduce the size of the haystack to make it easier to find the needle,” the testimony from the Maryland Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs’ Associations said.
DNA uploaded to certain commercial ancestry databases may require clients to accept terms of service that include law enforcement usage, but clients also have the option to keep their data private or to allow it to be accessed by other site users for comparison.
Because of this, there’s absolutely no expectation of privacy, according to the Maryland Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs’ Association.
The law enforcement officials also stated that information gathered from genealogical databases is used to generate leads, not convict people, and queries going through the database are only for violent criminals.
“It would make it more difficult to bring justice to Maryland’s crime victims,” law enforcement officials said.
But to Sydnor, searching through a DNA database seems to violate both the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights, which both protect individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Do not get me wrong, I want to see unsolved crimes resolved and perpetrators of crime prosecuted as well,” Sydnor said in his written testimony.