Family DNA Searches Seen as Crime-Solving Tool, and Intrusion on Rights

Teal Johnson

DNA familial searching allows investigators to compare DNA from a crime scene with offender databases with parameters allowing for identification of people who are likely to be close relatives of the person who may have committed the crime.  Law enforcement officials say that results are more of a lead than a piece of evidence.

The familial searching was pioneered in Britain, helping in 2002 with its first conviction using the technique.  Since then the technique has been used more than a dozen times over the last ten years in the United States.  California was the first state to authorize the testing technique and Colorado followed in their footsteps the next year.  It has since been used in at least 8 other states.

The are some ethical issues that come with familial searching because of the potential misuse, especially in the hands of the government.  A review of more than 800 rape cases processed by the New York City medical examiner’s office found that DNA evidence was mishandled in dozens of cases.  Additionally, critics of the technique say that it would expand the use of DNA databases beyond the original intent.  Allowing searches of people who happen to be related to someone who has committed a crime disproportionately affects blacks and Hispanics because of the higher proportions of those groups in prisons.  Many argue that this is fundamentally against American core values.

Familial testing raises the question of whether it is limited by the Fourth Amendment’s equal protection clause.  Erin E. Murphy, a law professor at New York University states that the legal implications of familial testing have not been tested in the courts.  She said, “You shouldn’t have fewer civil rights because you’re related to someone who broke the law.”

The pleas of a father who had his daughter was murdered in Brooklyn last summer while on a jog have rejuvenated the fight in New York for allowing familial searching.  The case is unsolved and seems to be an ideal case to utilize familial searching because of the quantity of DNA found at the scene that was not the victim’s.

The DNA subcommittee of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science may vote on approval of familial searching a meeting on Feb. 10.  This would be followed by a 45 day period for public comment. Many New York law enforcement officials believe that trade-offs in civil liberties are minor with this technique, especially compared to with the potential to solve some challenging cases.

See Eli Rosenberg, Family DNA Searches Seen as Crime-Solving Tool, and Intrusion on Rights, N.Y. Times (Jan. 31, 2017),