Man Arrested for Murder Claims that Police Use of a Genealogical DNA Database to Identify His Relatives Amounts to an Unconstitutional Search and an Invasion of His Privacy

Somehow, I doubt if this is going to hold up in court.

Lawyers for a man accused of raping and killing a woman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993 are asking a judge to dismiss the charges. In motions filed Monday, lawyers for Steven Downs claim the investigation into the sexual assault and murder of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie was “botched” by police.

Downs was arrested in February after investigators submitted a DNA sample from the crime to a company that uses extracted DNA to perform genetic genealogy testing. The sample matched another sample that had been submitted by a relative of Downs.

Defense lawyers claim that searching the genealogical database amounts to an unconstitutional search and an invasion of Downs’ privacy.

You can read more in an article in the WMTW Television web site at: http://bit.ly/34Ba48H.

8 Comments

Whether his claim holds up in court or not, this could well be the first legal case that attacks forensic genetic genealogy and the practitioners. No forensic genealogist has insulation from being questioned by a hostile attorney. Law enforcement seems to have adopted the common response that genetic genealogy is only used to generate leads, that other evidence is used to charge the crime. But the defense will likely question credentials, methodology, standards of the profession, were there standard professional reports with source citations so that the steps and conclusions can be replicated, are there professional genealogists who can be called as expert witnesses to counter the testimony of the case researcher, etc. It won’t matter whether a jury considers the questions/answers relevant in a verdict – the impact on the forensic genealogist and the profession can still be negative. This is a case to watch.

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    You bring up many good points.
    Adding on, I’d question the chain of custody for the DNA–both going in to the service provider and the results being issued–being at risk. It’s only a matter of time until a DNA suspect is cleared due to another person’s DNA or results being inadvertently swapped.
    Furthermore, I’m not want to provide details without law enforcement providing a warrant. I’m unclear about how many of these cases have had them issued, but those who do this as a business should be aware of their rights.

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He’s kidding, right?

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I hate to say it, I hope he wins his case, but I also hope they have enough other evidence to put him away.It seems to me (a non-lawyer) that this would be covered by the unauthorized search rule – fruit from the poisonous tree (according to the tv cop/law shows😀).

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    Kammer said:
    “It seems to me (a non-lawyer) that this would be covered by the unauthorized search rule – fruit from the poisonous tree (according to the tv cop/law shows😀) -”
    Hilarious Kammer – but hold on…. Don’t they (law enforcement) regularly put DNA evidence in a criminal database to find criminals? similarly, doesn’t law enforcement take fingerprints of every suspect that is booked? And isn’t it a fact (best Perry Mason Voice) that those fingerprints are regularly used to solve crimes? I think this is
    a benchmark case – but the defendant will lose. Remember, no matter how careful you are – sooner of later – you’ll get caught. Whether it’s now or 20 years from now.

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    You are correct, but a criminal data base of DNA and a fingerprint base is legal territory. You knew what would happen in the future when YOU agreed to (or were forced to) give these. When my cousin 1x removed gives their DNA for genealogy, who I never met and don’t even know they exist, I did not give my permission for my portion of familial DNA to be used for law enforcement to find me. In China right now, the government is using DNA to track down members of some minority sects (Uighurs) to imprison them, just for being of that minority. Can you imagine what Nazi Germany could have done with DNA from your relatives during WWII? Instead they had to use written genealogy booklets to show your ethnic purity. At least that could sometimes be fudged, not so if they had your bloodline DNA. It is a slippery slope – it seems like worthy territory to find old murderers but what if the wrong people get hold of it and the government someday says “yes” to anyone with this mixture being arrested. You have to look at the long term implications of this technology in the wrong hands. I have my DNA on a few data bases but I am very uncomfortable with doing so for the sake of my relatives – one reason I will not put my DNA on GEDMATCH and am considering withdrawing it from the other sites.

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Just like so called “family” crests, there is no such thing as “familial” DNA in law. In law, each persons DNA is their property to do what they wish. If they volunteer to upload their DNA to whatever site, that is their right and theirs alone. They have no duty to anyone else for doing so.
Also, Dick has reported not too long ago that there are more than enough tests submitted that will usually solve the question whether one chooses to participate now or not. As a professional genealogist who has solved over 20 unknown ancestor cases over the last 3 years, I can personally attest that this is absolutely true.

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I’m not sure if an “expert” should be given access to ANY genetic DNA databases when all I ever hear in reference to any of these cases (there have been others where the “experts” in law enforcement were using Y-chromosome test results to determine a man’s identity!) are generic terms like “DNA testing” or “genetic genealogy testing”…Uh….which tests are they using? And are they truly competent enough to make a decision which affects the outcome of a court case when we rarely hear the exact terminology from at least halfway competent geneticists? Y-chromosome at 12 markers is a HUGE difference from Y-chromosome at 111 markers and even THAT is not proof of guilt or innocence. It’s interesting when it happens to “somebody else” it’s always “no big deal”. What if it was your son or your father being falsely accused? Sometimes you wish it WOULD happen to those people. I think it would be an eye-opening “education” 😉

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