Genetic Genealogy in Criminal Investigations: A Double-Edged Sword

Genetic Genealogy in criminal investigation

Genetic Genealogy in Criminal Investigations: A Double-Edged Sword

One of the most significant breakthroughs in the fields of investigation and genetics was demonstrated in 2018 with the capture of the notorious Golden State Killer. A genetic genealogist and retired patent attorney helped investigators catch the infamous serial killer who was a former police officer who committed a slew of crimes from burglary to rape to serial murder across multiple jurisdictions and has managed to evade law enforcement for 40 years. It was this pioneering technology that ultimately led to his capture, and the term Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG) was born. This technology is crucial for criminal defense lawyers in North Carolina, enhancing their ability to navigate cases involving notorious criminals through investigative genetic genealogy.

This technology works by taking the genetic profile of the unknown subject from samples found in the crime scene and comparing it to the millions of DNA profiles stored in large databases. And if they found a match, there is a high likelihood that the unsub is related to the matching person, bringing law enforcement a step closer to finding their target.

The database used in this particular case is GEDMatch, a free and open-source online platform for DNA matching. The investigators used a technique called long-range familial search, in which they identified individuals who are genetic relatives of the then-unknown suspect based on their genetic profiles. From that point, the investigators narrowed down their list of suspects by utilizing the physical descriptions provided by eyewitnesses. Consequently, they were able to identify the perpetrator, as he was the only individual among the suspects with blue eyes.

DNA Technology and CODIS

DNA was first presented as evidence in the United States criminal court system in 1986. A few years later, DNA technology had become an irreplaceable tool in identifying or excluding suspected offenders.

One such project initiated by the government is a central database of DNA profiles called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), where DNA from convicted individuals and arrestees is archived and profiled. CODIS has added value to the investigative process since it was first used in 1998.

According to the North Carolina Department of Justice, the DNA database of the state of North Carolina currently includes over 380,000 DNA profiles. It consists of approximately 300,000 profiles from convicted offenders and around 50,000 profiles from individuals who have been arrested.

Understanding the Distinctions Between Investigative Genetic Genealogy and CODIS

The two methods of investigation work similarly, as both use DNA evidence from a crime scene that is then analyzed and profiled by a laboratory. However, in investigative genetic genealogy, the DNA profile is entered into a third-party DNA database, originally intended for tracing blood-related relatives and identifying health concerns, such as one’s predisposition to certain illnesses.

Privacy Concerns

The high-profile case of the Golden State Killer has sparked debates as to whether there is reason to fear for the safety of DNA information that people have given these commercial DNA testing companies.  They have been in existence for several years and have a huge amount of genotyped individuals in their database, notably exceeding the 24 million individuals in the National Database (CODIS-NDIS).

And the numbers are quite significant. A database of 1 million in the open-source GEDMatch has already yielded results that led to the resolution of a high profile case. Imagine the power it could give law enforcement if they could access the extensive collection of AncestryDNA, established in 2012 with about 25 million people in their database and 23andMe, established in 2006 that has DNA samples of more than 14 million people.

Aside from possible genetic relatives, commercial DNA companies can also provide health data and other personally identifiable information. In contrast, forensic database information is limited to identifying parents, children, kin, and are highly regulated.  Additionally, these commercial companies have a messaging system that provides a way to reach individuals who may be linked to a suspected perpetrator outside of traditional communications carried out by law enforcement. This may be viewed as an invasion of privacy by everyday users.

Fourth Amendment Concerns with Investigative Genetic Genealogy

Investigative genetic genealogy has been used in hundreds of cases in the US, as well as to solve cases all over the world, but there is a question as to how valid and legal these searches are. Individuals who paid and signed up for these services did not give consent to allow the government to access and search through their profile and there may exist an issue concerning the Fourth Amendment that protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

Long-range familial searching is raising concerns about potential violations of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. This is also concerning as a search of an individual’s DNA records may also implicate a much larger group of people, including the extended family of a suspect.

Proponents of genetic genealogy argue it does not violate the Fourth Amendment. When individuals voluntarily disclose their personal information online, for instance through public DNA databases, they may unintentionally relinquish certain protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment. This is a consequence of the third-party doctrine, which assumes that information willingly provided to third parties does not receive Fourth Amendment safeguards.

In November 2019, a Florida detective was granted full access to the DNA information of nearly one million people on the consumer DNA site GEDMatch, regardless of whether users had opted out of appearing in search results. Legal scholars say this could set a precedent that might open up all consumer DNA sites to the police. Law enforcement may potentially feel emboldened to request access to more than 20 million records on other consumer DNA sites such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe.

Protecting the Integrity of Genetic Information

The main question on the safety of people’s genetic information is if the courts have the authority to override corporate privacy policies, then what guarantee can be given to customers that genetic information is not used in any activity that they did not intend it for or authorized? Even if guardrails are put in place, nothing is stopping investigators from circumventing barriers by registering as ordinary users.

In response to the growing concerns of their customers regarding privacy, DNA-testing companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA have stated that they will protect their customers’ genetic information from law enforcement unless compelled to disclose it by a legitimate government order. If the government is allowed access to all of these DNA databases, especially those of 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which have a combined database of 39 million, there may be enough information to map out the rest of America, including those who have not provided their DNA to these companies.

A Need for Closer Examination

When you see this method aiding the police in capturing serial killers who’ve caused immense devastation to families and communities, it’s easy to overlook the legality of it. However, to ensure justice for all parties involved, a closer examination is necessary to establish clear guidelines for using this investigative method.

This approach, while groundbreaking, must be scrutinized from both legal and ethical perspectives to avoid potential abuses of power. Establishing protocols for obtaining and using data, ensuring transparency in the process, and guaranteeing the protection of innocent individuals’ privacy rights are critical steps. Without these safeguards, there is a risk of eroding public trust in law enforcement and the justice system. Therefore, it is important to develop comprehensive policies that outline the responsible use of such techniques, promoting both effective crime-solving and the preservation of civil liberties.

If you or your loved one is accused of a crime, don’t hesitate to call Patrick Roberts Law. Attorney Roberts is an experienced violent crime lawyer and sexual offense attorney, and he can help you fight your case. Payment options are available.


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