Recently in California, the FBI arrested a suspect infamously dubbed the Golden State Killer using DNA evidence. On the surface, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the police using DNA evidence to solve cases. Television has made people believe this a far more regular occurrence than it is.
However, this particular case is unique, at least from the legal evidentiary viewpoint. It highlights issues that you may not have considered when it comes to your privacy.
The Golden State Killer is now identified as 72-year-old former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo. He is accused of murdering a dozen people and the sexual assault of many more. All in an era before there was cellular phone data, Yahoo Email, Google Maps, and Instagram.
He was committing horrific crimes at a time when police relied heavily on shoe impressions and matching blood types. Nevertheless, police did manage to collect and preserve DNA from several of the crime scenes. Police patiently waited 40 years for technology, and our use of technology, to evolve.
ADVANCES IN DNA EVIDENCE
There has been much technological advancement in DNA identification evidence. As well, law enforcement is getting assistance through people voluntarily sharing their DNA with large corporations. In doing so, people are giving up their privacy interests in their DNA for use by genealogy websites.
This is happening because of a desire to learn about their ancestry. Also because of an ingrained need to learn more about their family history. Or maybe even in hopes of discovering a bit more about themselves. We all want to know where we come from.
Websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.ca offer blood tests that reveal information about our backgrounds and genealogy. But what is being given up in return for this information?
Unwittingly people are sharing genetic identifiers belonging to their parents, siblings and children. Relatives that would never consent to share their genetic profiles now have that decision taken away from them. Their DNA has been shared by proxy.
DNA DATABASE PRIVACY ISSUES
This raises interesting legal issues relating to your privacy. In theory, and of course depending on the circumstances of the crimes, police can now compare DNA found at a crime scene not only to police DNA databases, both local and national but now against selected corporate genealogy databases.
They, again, in theory, will be able to obtain production orders and search warrants compelling these genealogy sites to produce DNA profiles and the names associated with those profiles. Once they have this information, they will likely employ other judicial tools to compel additional DNA samples for use in criminal proceedings to be provided. Or patiently wait for a person to innocently discard their DNA samples. For example, seizing a glass used at a restaurant.
This means distant relatives with the same genetic identifiers would help police find and narrow down the suspects. Parents could be unknowingly leading police to their child by sharing their DNA with a genealogy site.
It’s an interesting approach to solving cold-cases where investigative leads have gone stale. Police are simply, and lawfully, accessing information that is available to the public. But it raises interesting questions:
- Would people have shared their DNA samples and provided personal information if they knew that it would be used by the police?
- Does an individual give up their privacy rights because a relative shared their DNA?
- Why are the police not using their own databases to generate lists of suspects based on family lineage?
CHALLENGING DNA EVIDENCE
Mr. DeAngelo in the course of his legal defence will very likely attempt to challenge the DNA evidence. If the police acted in good faith and collected the evidence lawfully, the DNA will likely stand and will have a significant role in his trial.
This story in USA Today highlights some of the early legal proceedings in the Golden State Killer case.
PROTECT YOUR PRIVACY & DNA INFORMATION
If you are concerned about your DNA being used by police then perhaps don’t submit a sample to a genealogy site. If you have already done so consider contacting the site and asking that they delete it. You might also consider asking all your relatives about their usage of genealogy sites.
William Jaksa practices criminal ligation in Toronto where he regularly encounters evidentiary issues surrounding the use of DNA evidence. For criminal defence representation, contact Jaksa today.