Crime, Privacy, And Your DNA

The methods used by authorities in the arrest of accused serial killer, former police officer, Joseph James DeAngelo, have brought to light concerns expressed by people monitoring the public’s right to privacy in genealogical DNA testing. DeAngelo was arrested after his DNA was matched to crime scene DNA, using genetic material from a distant relative, whose DNA had been stored in a genealogical online database.

In their search for the killer, authorities did not seek a warrant for DeAngelo’s DNA. They waited, instead, for him to discard items he had used, and swabbed them for DNA. The results were a conclusive match to DNA from crimes committed 30 years ago.

James DeAngelo has appeared in court, handcuffed to a wheelchair, to face charges of being the Golden State Killer. The crimes he is accused of are serial killer, serial rapist and serial burglar. From 1976-1986, at least 12 murders, 50 rapes, and 100 burglaries in California have been attributed to him.

The genealogy website, used to assist in identifying DeAngelo, said they did not know their database had been accessed by any law enforcement agency. They also stated their customers are informed in advance the database could be used for other purposes; however, they added their company does not knowingly pass out DNA profiles without good cause. The company said it takes their customers’ privacy seriously, while still supporting legally justified uses of their genetic materials.

The issue in question is described by civil rights advocates as an encroachment on the privacy of suspected criminals’ relatives. The familial DNA searches, while being an effective means in tracking down crime suspects, are possibly a violation of relatives’ Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches. As use of this new method of law enforcement is continued, crimes can be more efficiently investigated, but privacy for an unsuspecting public will need to be clarified and guaranteed to meet Fourth Amendment protection.  

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