Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Maryland outlaws law enforcement use of genealogy websites

Detectives were stumped by the 2010 shooting of Michael Anthony Temple in Odenton. The gunman left DNA on a cigarette and coffee cup, but a search of the police database found no match. Five years passed, the case went cold, and Temple died of his injuries.

The breakthrough came when investigators submitted the DNA to consumer genealogy websites. Nine years after the shooting, they charged Fred Lee Frampton Jr. It was an early instance of police in Maryland turning to genealogy websites such as Ancestry and GEDmatch to solve cold cases, reported the Baltimore Sun.

Now, Maryland becomes one of the first states in the country to set rules limiting how police can use the popular websites and their databases. The General Assembly passed the legislation this year. And though Gov. Larry Hogan didn’t sign the bill, he allowed it to become law anyway.

Beginning Oct. 1, police may use consumer genealogy websites only for serious violent crimes such as murder and rape, only after they exhaust other investigatory methods, and only under the supervision of a judge.

 “This is a new frontier in forensics, so you want to make certain that there are protections,” said Sen. Charles Sydnor III, a Democrat from Baltimore County who sponsored the bill.

Police departments came to realize the investigatory power of genealogy websites after the arrest of the notorious Golden State Killer in 2018. California authorities said they were led to Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. by family tree searches of genealogy websites. He pleaded guilty to more than a dozen murders and was sentenced to life in prison.

Soon detectives across the country were uploading DNA evidence from cold cases onto genealogy websites to locate family members of their suspects. A study in the journal Science found that a database of 1.2 million genetic profiles could identify a third cousin or closer match for 60% of Americans of European descent. One profile can lead to as many as 300 other people, said Natalie Ram, a law professor who researches genetic privacy at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

“Most of the people who engage in consumer genetic services, they’re not thinking at all about law enforcement,” Ram said.

Privacy advocates began to object to the methods. Maryland law had long forbidden police from using the state’s DNA database to try to identify family members of a suspect.

In 1994, the state authorized police to gather DNA for criminal investigations with the Maryland DNA Collection Act. In 2008, lawmakers expanded the act to allow police to collect and store DNA from people arrested for burglary or violent crimes. The expansion also prohibited detectives from using the state database to locate relatives of a suspect.

Maryland and Washington, D.C., are the only two jurisdictions in the country to prohibit familial searches on the state database, said Ram, the law professor.

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