Jun 1, 2021 - Science

2 states move to restrict DNA search practices with new laws

A worker in a lab at Nearmedic Pharma's integrated works manufacturing reagents for forensic DNA fingerprinting and relationship testing at the Obninsk industrial park, Russia

Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

Maryland and Montana have passed new laws restricting forensic genealogy, the DNA technique used to trace the Golden State Killer, in order to protect the privacy of suspects and their families, the New York Times reported Monday.

Why it matters: Law enforcement across the U.S. have access to DNA in databases outside of the criminal justice system. Through genealogy websites with millions of users, police have used DNA to identify suspects.

  • These are the country's "first laws limiting forensic genealogy," the NYT notes.
  • University of Maryland law professor Natalie Ram contends that giving investigators access to a suspect's genome, "including markers of sensitive health information, was akin to an unreasonable search, which is banned by the Fourth Amendment," per the Times.

Yes, but: The legislation has been criticized by law enforcement representatives, who argue that it will be "harder to solve cold cases," Montana Public Radio notes.

Zoom in: In Maryland from Oct. 1, a forensic genetic genealogical DNA analysis and search may "not be initiated without certifying certain information before a court and obtaining a certain authorization from the court," according to the bill's synopsis.

  • Investigators may only use the method for serious crimes, like murder and sexual assault, and they're only permitted to use websites "with strict policies around user consent," per the Times.
  • The Montana law requires "investigators to obtain a warrant to search consumer DNA databases like 23andMe or Ancestry.com," Montana Public Radio notes.

Of note: Maryland's law was sponsored by Democratic lawmakers, while a Republican is behind Montana's, demonstrating that "people across the political spectrum find law enforcement use of consumer genetic data chilling, concerning and privacy-invasive," Ram noted to the NYT.

Flashback: Police found DNA at several murder scenes in California and used the public genealogy sites GEDmatch.com and FamilyTreeDNA to narrow down their search and find Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer.

  • His DNA was "secretly retrieved ... from a discarded item" while he was under surveillance, per the Los Angeles Times, and matched to the murder scenes' samples.
  • DeAngelo is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to 13 murders and admitting 161 uncharged crimes, including rapes and burglaries, in the 1970s and 1980s.

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