March 17, 2011 8:01 pm

Familial DNA Testing Raises Privacy and Civil Rights Concerns

The ACLU of Illinois opposes familial DNA testing. Earlier this month, we presented our concerns in a speech on DNA familial testing at a symposium sponsored by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law.  Today, a Chicago Sun-Times editorial addressed those concerns.

Familial DNA testing is a new criminal investigative technique, in which police watch for a close but imperfect match between the DNA left at a crime scene by an unknown offender, and the DNA of a known convicted person in a forensic DNA database. If police find such a match, they may investigate the relatives of the convicted person.

All forensic DNA databases raise serious privacy and civil rights concerns, including invasion of medical privacy, violation of bodily integrity, and disparate impact against racial and ethnic minorities.

Familial DNA testing raises additional concerns. It arbitrarily creates two classes of people: relatives of convicted persons, who are subject to the technique, and other people, who are not.  It would massively expend the effective reach of forensic DNA databases, beyond the 9 million people now included, to the tens of millions of additional people who are their immediate relatives. And it would further aggravate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Today’s Sun-Times editorial does not adopt the ACLU’s position against all familial DNA testing.  However, it does adopt the ACLU’s suggested protections, if familial DNA testing is going to be used. These recommendations include:

  • Familial DNA searches should be used for only the most serious crimes and only if it seems likely the perpetrator will strike again.
  • Searches should require approval from a high-ranking police official and a warrant from a judge.
  • Familial DNA testing should use only forensic databases of convicted persons, and not also forensic databases of persons who are merely arrested.
  • If a person is investigated by police solely because they are a close relative of a convicted person who is a close match to the crime-scene DNA, police should need a warrant based on probable cause to seize the investigated person’s DNA, either forcibly or through so-called “found” DNA, such as that left on a coffee cup.
  • A decision to use familial DNA in Illinois should be made only by the state Legislature, and not just by law enforcement officials.
  • There should be regular reports from law enforcement to the general public on how well the system is working.
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