States turning to new "familial DNA" tests, practice faces legal hurdles

Published 17 May 2011

Law enforcement officials in several states across the United States are hoping to obtain the legal authority to begin conducting “familial DNA” testing, a process which could greatly increase the number of suspects identified in violent crimes; while DNA is often found at crime scenes using familial DNA would allow law enforcement officials to use DNA from a suspected criminal’s relatives to positively identify them; currently only California and Texas have laws in place that allow investigators to conduct familial DNA tests; Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida could soon join their ranks; the practice is still quite new and faces legal challenges and must be approved by a state’s courts

Law enforcement officials in several states across the United States are hoping to obtain the legal authority to begin conducting “familial DNA” testing, a process which could greatly increase the number of suspects identified in violent crimes.

While DNA is often found at crime scenes using familial DNA would allow law enforcement officials to use DNA from a suspected criminal’s relatives to positively identify them.

This practice is especially useful if a suspect’s information does not appear in existing databases. Under familial DNA testing investigators could cross-reference DNA obtained from a crime scene to a suspect’s parent, child, or sibling who is in police databases to see if there are any similarities.

Currently only California and Texas have laws in place that allow investigators to conduct familial DNA tests. Last March, Virginia joined their ranks when the state’s attorney general determined that police could conduct familial DNA searches and no new legislation was required to authorize the practice.

Pennsylvania could soon follow suit as lawmakers there have introduced a bill that would allow this practice in addition to expanding the types of crimes for which DNA samples could be collected.

Meanwhile Florida’s attorney general R.J. Larizza is currently reviewing software applications from forensics solution providers, and investigators there could begin using the new technology in the next several months.

Larizza explained, “If you get a match it’s very similar and would indicate a sibling or parent and that gives an investigative lead that law enforcement could follow up. Before we wouldn’t have that opportunity.”

Larizza is particularly keen on using this new DNA technology in the hopes that it will help investigators track down a serial killer who has murdered four women in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Police have found DNA evidence at each of the crime scenes, but were not able to match it to anything in their database.

Michael Chitwood, the Daytona Beach police chief, said, “Familial DNA can trace a father, brother or son and that’s what we’re hoping our serial killer has a relative who’s in that state database. It’s worth a shot.”

Law enforcement officials estimate that using familial DNA testing could increase the number of identified suspects by 40 percent.

But Steve Benjamin, a defense attorney in Richmond, Virginia, is careful to note that familial DNA testing only generates leads and is not conclusive evidence.

It uses DNA to give the police investigative leads. That’s all,” he said. “It’s not evidence.”

He also warns that it should not be used to determine guilt by association.

Critics of the practice say that this violates the Fourth Amendment which protects against unreasonable search and seizures as it uses the DNA of innocent family members to identify a criminal.

Critics also say that because there are a disproportionate number of Africa-Americans and Hispanics in the U.S. penal system, these minorities’ families would be subject to a greater number of searches than other ethnic groups.

Every police process has potential for abuse,” said Lisa Freeland, the federal public defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “This issue is new and hasn’t gotten into the courts. Until the court says it’s constitutional, it’s not.”

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