The Journal Gazette
Saturday, February 08, 2020 1:00 am

Support far from universal for DNA data as crime-solving tool

Thirty years passed between the time 8-year-old April Tinsley's body was found and her killer was arrested. The breakthrough came from a DNA sample, obtained from someone seeking ancestry clues through genetic codes.

Relief over the arrest of John D. Miller and the plea agreement that put him behind bars surely convinced many in northeast Indiana of the value of using ancestry databases to solve crimes.

But lawmakers in other states are considering legislation that would ban the use of DNA in such cases. Utah Republican Craig Hall has proposed a bill that would prohibit mass searches of genetic databases – a practice he referred to as “fishing expeditions.”

“We understand that law enforcement wants to use these tools, but the ends don't justify the means,” Hall said. “We don't need a surveillance state to catch the bad guys.”

The Utah legislator claims DNA database searches violate the Fourth Amendment's particularity requirement, which courts have ruled require police to obtain search warrants and describe in detail to a judge what evidence they would gather.

Hall's bill is supported by the ACLU of Utah and the Libertas Institute. The ACLU's Marina Lowe said she has heard police compare DNA information to fingerprints.

“It's not just like a fingerprint,” she said. “Your fingerprint can't connect you to your family members or tell all sorts of things about your personal health and makeup.”

If approved, Utah's ban would be the first in the nation. A similar bill was introduced in Maryland last year, but did not pass. The European Union categorizes DNA as personal data, so it is difficult for law enforcement to use the tool in those countries. 

A survey by Pew Research Center last year found nearly half of Americans do not object to ancestry test results being used to solve crimes. Forty-eight percent said it is acceptable, with one-third saying it should not be used and 18% undecided. Americans who have submitted their DNA to services such as Ancestry-DNA and 23AndMe support the use of data by law enforcement by an even greater margin, at 51%. 

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