Should Familial DNA Testing Be Allowed?

By Eric Zanzucchi (@ericzanzucchi)

DNA databases have been a great investigative tool for crime solving over the past twenty years. Most states have their own databases, but the FBI developed CODIS to serve as the national database. Each database has their own rules for inclusion into the database. Usually offenders would be added to the databases after the commission of a violent crime, though I’m sure different databases have different inclusion rules.

It must frustrate investigators to have a violent offender, but cannot find a DNA match. Investigators in Los Angeles have taken to testing for familial DNA, to see if they can narrow their search down to a bloodline. They recently used this tactic to capture a serial killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper. He murdered 10-16 women over a 22 year span. When investigators used CODIS they got no match, however they did have a 90+% match with a man called Christopher Franklin. Having that strong of a DNA match means that the person is likely a member of the immediate family. Investigators then got DNA from his father who was a perfect match to the Grim Sleeper’s DNA profile.

The LAPD is now looking into using that same methodology to try and catch a serial rapist dubbed the Teardrop Rapist. He’s linked to 35 rapes in the past 20 years. His name comes from the fact that victims describe him as having a teardrop tattoo under his eye, meaning he likely is or was in gang. Based on that lifestyle, it’s likely that he would have a family member in the database.

I’d like to raise the question of whether or not this investigative technique is a violation of privacy?

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution ensures that:

 “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Does this method of DNA testing constitute an unreasonable search? It’s all done by computer and anyone in the database is being crosschecked for a felony charge even if they’ve never been in the state the crime was committed. Is that not an unreasonable search? How would the warrant be worded? We are looking for any DNA in America that contains similarities with our suspect. If authorities had to manually collect the samples it would be deemed an unreasonable search. It’s just so easy and so effective that it’s hard to argue against it.

Don’t get me wrong, I want this guy caught. But there’s a reason all of our DNA isn’t entered into CODIS at birth. As a society we don’t treat everyone like they’re a criminal, to prevent crime. Since I’m not a felon this technique only serves to benefit me, but where do we draw the line. Why not just cheek swab every newborn and add them to the database? It would certainly make the country safer. But if safety is the goal why not spend our whole lives in solitary confinement. It’s certainly safer. No one is going have sympathy for these guys, since after all they are violent criminals. It just reposes a question we constantly have to ask ourselves. How Orwellian do we want our society to become?