Kaye Beach

Do you know what your cousin has been up to?

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2010 at 4:56 am

You may very well be finding out very soon.

New Rule Allows Use of Partial DNA Matches


Published: January 24, 2010

ALBANY — New York has become the latest of a handful of jurisdictions to permit a controversial use of DNA evidence that gives law enforcement authorities a sophisticated means to track down criminals.

Under a state rule approved in December, DNA found at a crime scene that does not exactly match that of someone in the state’s DNA database can still be used to pursue suspects if the DNA closely resembles that of someone on file.

Since family members share genetic traits, a partial DNA match allows investigators to narrow searches to relatives of people whose DNA is already in the state database, forensic experts say.

But advocates for protecting the public’s privacy warned that the practice could be abused and effectively promoted a guilt-by-association approach to criminal justice that could result in the investigation of many innocent people. New York’s DNA database contains more than 343,000 genetic profiles of people convicted of serious crimes.

As DNA databases have grown and investigators have become more sophisticated about recovering genetic evidence from every possible source at a crime scene, partial matches have become a tantalizing policing tool.

In Denver, prosecutors say searching for partial matches has so far led to one conviction in the year and a half the city has been using new software that allows investigators to identify possible relatives of suspects. In that case, a suspect broke into a car and bled on the dashboard. Investigators were able to match the blood to someone already in the DNA database who turned out to be the suspect’s brother.

New York’s rule, which was approved by the state’s Commission on Forensic Science and is expected to take effect in the spring, will allow forensic investigators working for the State Police to share information about partial matches with local law enforcement agencies.

Law enforcement officials say the policy frees forensic scientists from sitting on potentially valuable evidence that they had not been able to turn over to local police departments.

“You could have a horrific crime — a serial rapist or killer — and you could have a clue in a lab that could identify the killer or rapist that we’re currently not allowed to use,” said Denise E. O’Donnell, New York’s deputy secretary for public safety and chairwoman of the Commission on Forensic Science.

State Police forensic labs typically analyze DNA evidence for police departments too small to have their own labs. Each year, investigators run across 10 to 15 partial matches indicating that the DNA sample could belong to the relative of somebody on file, Ms. O’Donnell said.

The commission’s approval came despite arguments from the New York Civil Liberties Union that the rule should have been put before the State Legislature.

“It’s quite clear that the commission is adopting a fundamental change in law enforcement,” said Robert Perry, legislative director of the civil liberties union. “By definition, the commission has relaxed the standard of precision regarding the use of DNA evidence.”

Civil libertarians also worry that the state’s new guidelines are feeding a much more expansive use of criminal databases across the country.

“What familial searching does is it expands the database to include people who are completely innocent,” said Tania Simoncelli, who studies DNA evidence-handling policies for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The new rule gives official legal sanction to a guideline adopted in 2006 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation allowing states to share information about partial matches that were run through a national DNA database overseen by the bureau.

Since the federal policy went into effect, some law enforcement agencies have put in place even more aggressive DNA policies. Besides Denver, investigators in California also explicitly strive to match unidentified DNA samples with someone already on file.



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