Can DNA Evidence From Genealogy Services Be Used In A Texas Criminal Case?
At-home DNA testing services that help people learn about their family trees and locate long-lost relatives have experienced a remarkable rise in recent years. What might have once taken years of extensive research can now be accomplished in a matter of weeks using simple kits that anybody can order and use on their own. Thanks to the affordability and ease of these services, millions have submitted DNA samples to private vendors such as Ancestry or 23andMe to learn more about themselves.
Once a person submits a DNA sample to these companies, however, they lose some control over what happens with genetic information. DNA testing companies may use the genetic samples for other purposes, sell the data to pharmaceutical companies or other businesses, or turn the DNA data over to law enforcement agencies.
Police famously used DNA information from a genealogy tracking site to locate the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, in 2018. This evidence was then used to obtain a conviction at his trial for 13 separate murders. Law enforcement agencies in Texas will also use this type of information to solve cold cases or support ongoing investigations of criminal suspects. These practices have led to ethical concerns about the use of a person’s genetic sample for purposes beyond what they intended the sample to be used for.
Once a DNA sample is turned over, however, the cat is out of the bag and it is very difficult to have that information suppressed or sealed. The State of Texas is generally allowed to use DNA evidence against criminal suspects, whether they have given the sample voluntarily or as a result of a search warrant. When someone is arrested for a violent crime or sexual assault, police may be entitled to take DNA through a cheek swab at booking or at arraignment. Prosecutors can also file a motion for forensic DNA testing during the course of a case.
Collection of DNA evidence in Texas criminal cases must follow the Constitutional protections a Defendant is entitled to – particularly protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. A DNA sample collected without following proper protocols can potentially be excluded from use at a criminal trial.
What does this mean for DNA samples uploaded to commercial databases? Unfortunately, individuals are not offered substantial protections on how this data is used. The U.S. Department of Justice recently issued rules regarding how and when police can use genetic genealogy to locate and prosecute criminal suspects.
Under the DOJ guidelines, law enforcement agencies:
- Should limit searches of genealogical data to cases involving violent crimes such as murder or rape, or to identify human remains;
- Should exhaust other methods of investigation before turning to DNA stored through private companies;
- Should identify themselves as police officers when utilizing genealogical sites, instead of creating fake profiles.
Additionally, customers of commercial “family tree” services should be given informed consent that their information could potentially be used to assist in police investigations.
The bottom line is that DNA information submitted to a commercial service such as Ancestry can and will be used by law enforcement if certain steps are followed. An individual has few protections in terms of how DNA samples are used once they are voluntarily turned over.
If You Have Been Charged With a Crime and Your DNA is Being Used Against You, Contact Our Pearland, Texas Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Modern advances in technology mean that our most personal information – our DNA itself – can be easily collected and used to let us learn more about ourselves and our families. This same information can also be used by police to put a person or their relative at the scene of a crime where DNA samples were collected. If you face a criminal charge in which your DNA sample has been collected or might be collected, it is important to know your legal rights and prepare a solid legal defense in your case.
At Keith B. French Law, our Pearland criminal defense lawyers will review your case and make sure that your Constitutional rights and the rules of evidence are being observed correctly. To learn more and discuss your legal options, contact the offices of Keith B. French Law, PLLC online or call 832-243-6153 today.