2011-05-19 / Local & State

Pennsylvania Mulls Using Familial DNA To Locate Suspects

PITTSBURGH (AP) – State lawmakers are considering allowing investigators to use the genetic material from relatives to track suspects in violent crimes who have left DNA evidence at a crime scene but whose genetic fingerprint is not contained in any database – something that opponents say raises privacy and fairness concerns.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, has introduced legislation to allow family searching and expand the crimes for which DNA samples can be collected. Pileggi said the measure would “save a tremendous amount of money in criminal investigation and aid in the arrest of the criminals who tend to be serial perpetrators of crimes,’’ heading off death or serious harm to the innocent.

The bill would allow law enforcement officials to collect DNA samples from people arrested for felonies and a larger number of misdemeanors. It would also require those samples to be purged automatically from the database if the person is acquitted of the charges or never charged with the crime.

“It changes the law in the list of offenses in which DNA testing is required, and this would be pre- conviction rather than post-conviction,’’ Pileggi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Such an expanded DNA search was used successfully to find a suspect in the “Grim Sleeper’’ slayings in the Los Angeles area. Investigators were led to Lonnie Franklin Jr. after his son was arrested on an unrelated matter and swabbed for DNA. The sample came back as similar to evidence in the serial killings. Franklin has pleaded not guilty to charges that he killed 10 women from 1985 to 2007 in what was dubbed the “Grim Sleeper’’ case because of a long break in the killings, from 1988 until 2002.

Only California and Colorado have policies that allow them to perform familial DNA searches, although Texas has also used the technology without any change in law. Virginia officials announced in March that they also would conduct familial DNA searches after the attorney general’s office concluded that no legislation was needed to do so.

At a Duquesne University symposium on the issue Friday at the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, several participants called DNA kinship analysis an important “truth-finding tool’’ in finding the right person who committed violent crime. Without it, they said, several rapists and killers wouldn’t have been arrested and might have continued to kill.

“It’s an elephant in the room and can’t be ignored,’’ said Rockne Harmon, a retired a prosecutor in Oakland, Calif., who advocates the use of DNA familial searching. “You don’t talk to anybody. You don’t roust anybody, and it ends up where it deserves to end up’’ with identification of the right suspect.

Opponents, however, question whether such searches violate Fourth Amendment privacy protections against unreasonable searches and seizures for innocent family members whose DNA is used to identify a family member. Others point to the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Hispanics in the prison system, which would mean minority families could unfairly be subjected to a greater number of such searches than the majority population.

“Every police process has potential for abuse,’’ said Lisa Freeland, the federal public defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “This issue is new and hasn’t gotten into the courts. Until the court says it’s constitutional, it’s not.’’

Also at issue is when states can legally collect DNA samples. Some collect samples upon arrest rather than conviction, as fingerprints are taken. The issue is now before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals following the appeal of Ruben Mitchell, who refused to provide a sample after his arrest on drug charges and said it was unconstitutional to collect such a sample before conviction. U. S. District Court Judge David S. Cercone in Pittsburgh ruled in his favor in November 2009.

Michael Risher, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said collecting DNA from people arrested but not convicted violated the Fourth Amendment, but familial searching done under proper context “doesn’t violate the Constitution.’’ Such search methods, he said, should be subject to statute so that the government rather than law enforcement decides what is proper and constitutional.

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