A New York court has ended the use of a DNA crime-fighting tool that has helped solve cold cases and put murderers behind bars, but also raised privacy and discrimination concerns racially, as state lawmakers have never approved of this practice.
Known as a familial DNA search, this technique allows law enforcement to search the state’s DNA database for close biological relatives of people who left traces of genetic material at a crime scene.
A panel of judges from a mid-level appeals court ruled Thursday that the technical regulations were invalid because a state committee implemented them without the consent of the Legislative Assembly.
Three of the five panel members voted to suspend the search, which was opposed by a group of black men who feared they would be investigated because their biological brothers had been convicted of crimes and had information DNA stored in the state DNA data bank.
Judge Judith J. Gische, writing for the majority, noted that family DNA research is useful in investigating crimes — including identifying serial killers in Kansas and California and a recent arrest in the Bronx — and that the court’s decision to stop the practice was based on concerns about the separation of government powers.
“We find that the overwhelming policy issues inherent in authorizing the use and limitations of family match searches of DNA information collected from the New York State database warrant the conclusion that it is acts an inherent legislative function and that the impugned regulation cannot stand,” Gische wrote. .
The decision only affects the state’s DNA databank, which contains samples from people convicted of crimes in the state, not databanks run by private companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe for research. in genetic genealogy.
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Regulations on searching the state database were passed in 2017 by New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, part of the state’s executive branch, and the Independent Commission of Forensic Science. .
New York has approved just 30 law enforcement requests to conduct family DNA searches since the technique was adopted. He disclosed match names to police in 10 cases, two of which resulted in arrests.
Janine Kava, spokeswoman for the Division of Criminal Justice Services, said the agency is reviewing the decision to determine next steps. These could include taking the case to the highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals.
Authorities have, for decades, found suspects by comparing crime scene evidence to the DNA of convicted offenders. Family DNA testing comes into play when there is no match. Rather, he is looking for people similar enough to be closely related to the one who left the crime scene DNA. From there, investigators can search for family members who may be suspects and, if they find one, search for enough other evidence to lay charges.
The state legislature authorized the creation of the state DNA data bank in 1994, but only authorized the collection and research of samples from those convicted of crimes. In 2010, the state authorized the disclosure of partial match information to law enforcement, but not the specific technique of finding relatives of people in the database.
Lawmakers have debated expanding the use of the databank over the years, but have never passed legislation authorizing family searches. This led the Criminal Justice Services Division and the Forensic Science Commission to take action on their own. The commission voted to allow familial DNA searches in murder, rape and other cases, including times when it could help exonerate someone already convicted.
The Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit representing indigent defendants in New York City, sued the state in February 2018, arguing that the Division of Criminal Justice Services lacked the authority to unilaterally expand the use from the DNA database.
The lawsuit raised concerns that innocent people could be ensnared in a criminal investigation “based solely on their genetic kinship with convicted persons”.
The lawsuit, filed in conjunction with law firm Gibson Dunn, argued that people of color were at higher risk of being studied through family DNA research because the majority of DNA information in the bank Much of the state’s data comes from people of color, and that the state has done nothing to prevent police from going overboard or giving suspicious people fewer searches.
Jenny S. Cheung, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s DNA unit, said the Criminal Justice Services Division and the Forensic Science Commission “acted far beyond their jurisdiction and authority. by unilaterally enacting this far-reaching policy, a policy that should have been left to the legislature to debate.
“We welcome this decision which affirms our serious constitutional, privacy and civil rights concerns regarding family tracing, a technique that disproportionately affects Black and Latinx New Yorkers,” Cheung said.