Should familial DNA searching be legal in all 50 states?

Logo for CODIS: Combined DNA Index SystemYou know the drill: a murder is committed and investigators gather evidence from the crime scene–fingerprints, strands of hair, and, if they’re lucky, DNA. Once a DNA profile is obtained, police enter it into the national CODIS database, searching for a match. CODIS stands for Combined DNA Index System, a program supported and run by the FBI. One part of CODIS is the NDIS, or the National DNA Index System, which contains DNA profiles contributed by the federal, state, and local law enforcement. Whenever law enforcement enters a new DNA profile into CODIS, it is in hopes that the computer program will return a match. Sometimes that match comes in the form of another crime scene that has been entered into the system that maybe police did not think were linked. Sometimes that match comes in the form of a direct hit on an individual whose DNA has already been submitted into the system after a prior conviction. Sometimes there is no match at all and the case turns cold. In the rarest of occasions, however, there is another kind of hit–a familial match.

Currently, the only way an individual’s DNA can be entered into CODIS is if he or she is arrested and/or convicted of a crime in a county or state that participates in submitting DNA profiles to the database. As it stands, all 50 states in the U.S. collect DNA from violent offenses, such as sexual assault and homicide. In some states, your DNA may be collected if you have been arrested for a crime–even if it is just a misdemeanor. Some organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are concerned with this practice and cite privacy concerns associated with this method of collection. I can understand that–to an extent. On the one hand, you have a right to your own privacy, but when we are talking about murder and sexual assault, shouldn’t we explore every avenue we can to try to solve these types of crimes?

That’s where this gets interesting. Sometimes CODIS returns familial matches–one where the individual’s DNA profile is not found in the system, but someone from his or her family is found. So, let’s say, you committed a few horrific murders several decades ago, but you’ve never been arrested and have never had your DNA entered into CODIS. So far, you’ve managed to evade punishment for your crimes, right? You might even think you’ve committed the perfect crime. But maybe you have a brother who is a little bit of a hot head and he is arrested one day for assault, twenty years after your crimes were committed. His DNA is entered into CODIS and a mandatory search of his profile is initiated, turning up a familial hit on those now decades-old unsolved murders. Should police have the right to seek out the member of the family who matched those murders? This is exactly what happened two years ago to John Bittrolff, a carpenter from Manorville, New York. You might remember I have written several blog posts on his case and my thoughts on why I think it’s possible he could be linked to other murders in the Manorville/Long Island area..

Photo of John Bittrolff

John Bittrolff

Bittrolff’s case hasn’t gotten very far in the two years he’s been in custody, and the media has been very hush-hush about what is gong on with it. Police also haven’t released any evidence stating they have reason to believe Bittrolff’s case is linked to the Long Island Serial Killer’s, but the murders he is tied to have eerie connections to the Gilgo Beach murders and I hope they are at least looking into it, if they haven’t already. Putting that theory aside for the moment, it seems the manner in how Bittrolff’s DNA was linked to these murders is something that could eventually become standard practice.

Karina Vetrano poses for a photo after competing in the Spartan Race.

Avid runner Karina Vetrano was murdered in August 2016.

We are now learning that the Queens District Attorney, Richard Brown, has written a letter to the New York State Commissioner of Criminal Justice Services asking for permission to use familial searching of DNA to help solve a horrific crime from earlier this year. On August 2, thirty-year-old Karina Vetrano went for a run at Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach. When she didn’t return hours later, her father called police and they used her cell phone to help them locate her badly beaten body about fifteen feet off her normal running route. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten so severely, her teeth had been knocked out. A DNA profile of the perpetrator was constructed from samples taken from Karina’s cell phone, neck, and under her fingernails, but it could not be matched with anything in CODIS. Now, police are hoping to receive permission to search for male relatives of the DNA profile that might be entered into CODIS, in an effort to get them one step closer to finding her killer.

Currently, nine states in the U.S. do allow familial DNA searching: California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. New York is not one of them. While the Bittrolff case did happen in New York, investigators insist they were not searching for a familial match when they entered his brother’s DNA into the system–rather the match was so similar, it presented itself to them. Now DA Brown wants the state of New York to give his forensic team the green light to perform this higher-level of DNA searching to catch this violent offender. In his letter to the Commissioner, Brown stated, “This tragic murder has been exhaustively investigated using every tool currently available, but it remains unsolved. The killer remains at large, the public remains in danger, and the suffering of the victim’s family is amplified by law enforcement’s inability to yet solve this most awful crime.”

Look, I’m all for strict privacy laws around DNA profiling, but I think when you commit such a heinous act as raping and murdering a female jogger on the side of the road, you sort of lose that privilege of privacy protection. The safety of the public is clearly at stake with this dangerous, violent offender still out on the streets. I do, however, think familial DNA searching needs some strict governance around it. If we begin to allow law enforcement to use this type of searching in CODIS at the state level, how far will it go? Will they be able to use this type of DNA searching for all crimes–even misdemeanors? Is that really ethical? Or do you think if you have broken the law, no matter how heinous the crime, your right to privacy should be compromised? It’s an interesting precedent that I think we’ll start to see in more and more cases as our tools and technology keep improving.

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2 thoughts on “Should familial DNA searching be legal in all 50 states?

  1. If this means more unsolved murders could potentially be solved, then why not? As long as a formidable protocol is in place and is followed, I think it should be allowed.
    There are too many unsolved cases along with victims family’s suffering and if one case can be solved, It’s worth the price of the privacy invasion.

  2. AND why aren’t police depts unwilling to share info across the states like they do in Canada? Yet they hold these cases close to the vest, within their depts. and then nothing gets solved.

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