California will adopt the most aggressive approach in the nation to a controversial crime-fighting technique that uses DNA to try to identify elusive criminals through their relatives, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown announced Friday.
Employing what is known as familial or "partial match" searching, the policy is aimed at identifying a suspect through DNA collected at a crime scene by looking for potential relatives in the state's genetic database of about a million felons. Once a relative is identified, police can use that person as a lead to trace the suspect.
The policy, which takes effect immediately, is designed to work like this: The state's crime lab will tell police about DNA profiles that come up during routine searches of California's offender database and closely resemble, but do not match, the DNA left at a crime scene. (Previously, the state refused to tell police about these partial matches.)
The lab will then perform calculations and tests to determine the likelihood of a biological relationship between the person found in the database and the unknown offender believed to have left DNA at the crime scene.
When such partial matches do not surface or fail to produce a lead, a more customized familial search can be done in which computer software scans the database proactively for possible relatives. The software measures the chance of two people being related based on the rarity of the markers they share.
California appears to be the first state in the nation to use this second technique as a matter of policy. Drafted with the heavy involvement of lawyers, the new policy requires a series of meetings with police and prosecutors to ensure that the relative's name is vital to the investigation and that all other leads have been exhausted.
Once a relative has been identified, police can interview him or construct a family tree based on existing records. If a suspect is identified, police can obtain a warrant for his DNA, or even gather it surreptiously from an abandoned drink or cigarette butt. The suspect's DNA sample would then be compared to the crime scene sample and possibly used as evidence.
Civil libertarians oppose using DNA databases to search for relatives of unknown offenders, saying it puts family members under "genetic surveillance" for crimes they did not commit. For now, all the people in the state's database are convicted offenders, but the state plans to expand the database next year to include arrestees, heightening concerns over privacy.
Critics say familial searching could expose sensitive and secret genetic relationships. A son, for example, could learn that his father was not his biological parent. DNA databases also reflect the racial and ethnic biases of the justice system, exposing minority communities to more surveillance than others, critics maintain.
I really like the part about collecting DNA from people who aren't even convicted of a crime. Our founding fathers would be horrified by what the nation has allowed itself to become.