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How Consumer Genetic Testing Is Changing Law Enforcement In California

Okabe & Haushalter Sep 21, 2018 Criminal Defense

Perhaps you’ve seen the commercials for popular genetic-testing companies on TV or online. These businesses can take a quick sample of saliva and give you your DNA ancestry and genetic health risk predisposition. Sounds helpful and intriguing, yes? But you might be surprised to find out that the police are interested in your DNA profile as well, creating a need to hire a Brentwood criminal defense attorney.

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a man called the Golden State Killer killed 12 people and raped 45 women within the state of California. Police was convinced it was the work of one man because the same DNA was left at each crime scene, but they couldn’t find a match in the DNA databases of state law enforcement or the FBI.

In the spring of 2018, the police finally caught this heinous criminal. Turns out he was a former policeman who committed many of the crimes while he was still an officer. Now 72, he was arrested and charged.

Where does genetic testing come into play in this case? Police found the suspect after a distant relative had their DNA tested at one of these companies. Genetic-testing companies keep a databank of DNA information for the customers they’ve served and allow consumers to research their ancestry for free. The Golden State Killer’s relative had performed public DNA and genealogy research online.

Police investigated several ancestries and DNA sites, eventually finding a match that narrowed down their search to one specific family. They then worked on matching possible suspects with old composite sketches that fit into the right age range and geographic location. While initially looking at the wrong people, law enforcement was eventually led to a person they believed to be the true suspect. They surveilled him and collected items he touched to obtain DNA samples without his knowledge. When the DNA was a match, they finally arrested him, 40 years after his crime spree.

While this story has a happy ending, there is still the problematic issue of privacy when it comes to the police using DNA databanks. Unbeknownst to the consumers, they are becoming potential informants when they send in their saliva. Not only are they providing information about their own DNA, but also the DNA of anyone related to them, including distant relatives that they don’t know personally.

While most consumer ancestry and genetic testing companies say they won’t provide DNA results to police without a subpoena or warrant, in the long run, that may not mean much. If a consumer uploads their DNA profile on a public website, it’s considered public information. That’s why it’s important to have a Brentwood criminal defense attorney on your side.

The biggest problem with using public DNA profiles is that sometimes using a relative’s DNA can lead to false positives. In the case of the Golden State Killer, the police put at least one innocent individual under suspicion in their search for the truth.

Some states have banned familial DNA searches because they can place the wrong targets under suspicion. However, familial DNA investigation is a technological break-through in crime fighting advancement that law enforcement won’t give up easily. Debating the effectiveness of this tool versus the false-positive identifications and privacy concerns is sure to be a hot-button topic in the coming years.

If you’ve been accused of a crime, fight the charges by hiring a Brentwood criminal defense attorney at Okabe and Haushalter. We offer a free initial consultation to discuss an effective advocacy strategy for your criminal matter. Call us at 310-430-7799 today.