Back in 2005, when law enforcement was searching to identify the BTK (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) serial killer, they obtained a suspect’s daughter’s DNA by compelling a hospital to turn over a sample they held. Her DNA led to the arrest of Dennis Rader.
At the time, there was a lot of discussion about using a family member’s DNA to try to find a match to a suspect. If a family member volunteered it, that was one thing, but could law enforcement compel production of DNA of a family member or was that a Fourth Amendment “search” and if so, why would a court issue a warrant when the person you’re trying to compel DNA from is not suspected of any crime? Do family members somehow lose Fourth Amendment rights? And what about using a family member’s DNA because it’s already in a database law enforcement has access to? What protects the rights of family members who are not suspected of any crimes?
So there were discussions of the legal issues and ethical issues at the time, but even critics had to acknowledge that getting bad guys off the street was a Good Thing. And so the practice continued in some cases, although not all states have resolved the issues or approved of such compelled DNA production or using other databases to find family members’ DNA.
Eli Rosenberg has an article in today’s NY Times about this issue, introducing the topic by reference to an unsolved case in New York:
The leads have dried up in the killing of a young woman in Queens during a jog last summer.
Tips about potential suspects have gone nowhere. A reward has failed to bear fruit, even as it has swelled to over $280,000. And the samples of a stranger’s DNA found on the hands, throat and cellphone of the jogger, Karina Vetrano, 30, did not match those in national offender databases.
But the authorities say that the recovered DNA could hold the key to solving the case if state officials authorize what is called familial searching, which allows investigators to search criminal databases to identify likely relatives of the offender.
Read more on NY Times. This is an issue involving privacy and the Fourth Amendment. We want law enforcement to find and capture criminals, but are we justifying erosion of civil liberties and human rights if we approve of nonconsensual family searching of DNA?