- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2021

Maryland lawmakers are poised to pass first-in-the-nation legislation that would limit police access to popular genealogical databases that have been used in recent years to solve decades-old rape and homicide cases across the country.

Using DNA analysis from crime scenes, authorities have been able to identify suspects such as the “Golden State Killer,” who terrorized Californians in the 1970s and 1980s. The genetic samples came from relatives who submitted to genealogy-tracing companies such as GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA.

The Democratic-controlled Maryland House last week unanimously passed H.B. 240, which would restrict authorities’ access to such databases and technology.

“[T]his is new technology,” state Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III, Baltimore County Democrat and the bill’s Senate sponsor, told The Washington Times. “I’m still not certain how it may adversely affect our Fourth Amendment rights, and that’s my concern, primarily, is making certain that your rights to privacy and things aren’t being abused.”

The legislation would require authorities to obtain a judge’s approval to launch a forensic genetic genealogical DNA investigation.

Such investigations would be allowed only for cases involving murder, rape or felony sexual offense, kidnapping, human trafficking, or “circumstances presenting a substantial and ongoing threat to public safety or national security,” according to the legislation.

Mr. Sydnor, who in 2019 introduced a bill that would have banned authorities’ use of the technology, called the legislation a “compromise.”

“It [is] a bill that gets at a lot of the issues that I initially had: one being the privacy rights of people who were not suspects in these kinds of cases, another being notification — that the general public would know that their DNA may be used in these manners by law enforcement,” he told The Times.

Mr. Snydor and Delegate Emily K. Shetty, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, worked with a panel of geneticists, professors, lawyers and members of law enforcement to craft the legislation.

Ms. Shetty tweeted last week that the bill would create “the nation’s first guardrails on law enforcement’s use of forensic genetic genealogy.”

Under the legislation, genealogical database companies that provide information to authorities for forensic genetic search and analysis would have to be licensed by the state’s office of health care quality.

In addition, those companies would have to obtain consent from customers to share that information. In 2019, GEDmatch began requiring users to opt in if they want law enforcement to be able to use their information.

Authorities across the country have solved dozens of criminal cases, some decades old, using DNA analysis since the 1990s. That was when the FBI established the Combined DNA Index System, commonly known as CODIS.

Forensic specialists can compare and match certain aspects of a person’s DNA in a genealogical database with genetic material recovered at a crime scene to determine whether that person’s relative was involved in the crime. The CODIS, however, is limited to DNA collected from crime scenes and convicted offenders.

In 2018, authorities in California cross-checked decades-old DNA left behind by the notorious “Golden State Killer” with genetic samples uploaded by people using the free database GEDmatch. A match by a distant relative led police to arrest and charge former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo.

DeAngelo later was convicted of killing 12 people and raping 45 women. He was sentenced in August to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Parabon NanoLabs, which works with authorities to analyze genetic material, helped law enforcement officers solve two cold-case murders in Maryland last year.

“Even if that lead is used to get DNA from so-and-so, it’s still just a lead and the detectives are the ones that are closing those cases, finding that person, getting proper cause to get their DNA and match it back to that crime scene sample, so we’re just helping them get there,” Ellen Greytak, Parabon’s director of bioinformatics, told WDVM-TV in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Conversely, more than 300 accused or convicted people have been exonerated through DNA technology, according to the Innocence Project.

People commonly use genealogical databases to learn about their family history or connect with distant relatives or adoptive relatives.

A spokesperson for the popular genealogical website Ancestry.com told The Times that the company does not give police access to its database.

“While we do not allow law enforcement to access the AncestryDNA database for forensic genealogy searches, we support Maryland’s efforts to ensure that individual privacy protections are in place for services that do allow law enforcement to access their databases,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the ancestral database 23andMe said the company “has not disclosed any customer information to law enforcement. 23andMe closely scrutinizes all law enforcement and regulatory requests, and we will only comply with court orders, subpoenas, search warrants or other requests that we determine are legally valid.”

Bowie Police Chief John Nesky, the president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said the organization supports the measure.

“It was a collaborative effort and addresses the public’s concerns while maintaining Law Enforcement’s ability to utilize a valuable resource,” Chief Nesky said in an email.

Mr. Syndor said the legislation is not “perfect” but he hopes it can pave the way for similar laws elsewhere.

“I think the hope is that Maryland’s legislation could be used as a model for other states and even nationally,” he said.

The measure is one of several being pushed through the final weeks of the General Assembly’s legislative session, which ends April 12.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, did not respond to a request for comment.

Because the legislation has received unanimous approval in both chambers with veto-proof majorities, it likely will go into effect on Oct. 1.

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