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Familial DNA Searches

Can the police use DNA from someone’s family to track down that person and link him to a crime? In fact, they can, for good or ill.

In February 2015, the Tampa Bay Times reported that sheriff’s deputies from Pasco County, Florida, arrested a suspect in the 1992 sexual battery and attempted murder of a young woman. The break in this cold case came through the relatively new law enforcement practice of familial DNA searching. In a typical DNA search, a crime lab runs a DNA sample through a law enforcement database to find a match. If the sample does not come from someone already in the database, there is no match and the DNA cannot help identify a suspect. A familial DNA search, however, looks to compare DNA found at a crime scene with the DNA of any family members who might be in a database accessible to the police.

In the Pasco County case, the deputies’ search led them to the suspect’s son, who was in prison and therefore in a searchable database. Once they had found the son, deputies obtained DNA samples from other family members, including the suspect, who’s DNA matched the crime scene sample.

Law enforcement professionals are understandably excited about the possibilities of familial DNA searches. But a Wired story demonstrates the potential pitfalls of this enthusiasm. When Idaho Falls detectives performed a familial search on DNA evidence found at the scene of a 1996 murder, they determined that it had similarities to the DNA of the father of a man who lived in New Orleans. The police did not find the father in a law enforcement database. Rather, he had given a DNA sample some years before to a genealogy project which ended up in a publicly accessible database on Ancestry.com. After learning from his Facebook page that he had traveled to Idaho in 1998, police arrested the New Orleans man. Subsequent DNA testing cleared him.

Few states have any policies or rules in place to govern familial DNA searches, although two jurisdictions (Maryland and Washington, D.C.) forbid them. Currently, they are not done at the national level. The FBI recommends that jurisdictions considering the practice establish policies and procedures before implementing it. The FBI notes that the United Kingdom, which has a great deal more experience conducting familial searches, has developed extensive protocols governing the process, including:

  • an approval process;
  • considerations for prioritization of potential matches;
  • research of family history; and
  • training of law enforcement officers.

Significantly, the FBI describes familial DNA searching as “an additional search of a law enforcement DNA database,” indicating that any law enforcement search should be confined to law enforcement databases, not expanded to any available database such as the one the Idaho Falls detectives dug up. But without any rules in place to govern the process, cases like that inevitably will continue to happen.

Contact a Florida criminal defense attorney

If you or a loved one is involved in a criminal case, the best way to protect your rights is to seek the advice of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. With offices in Miami and Orlando, the lawyers of The Baez Law Firm can help. Contact us for a consultation today.

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