Law enforcement agencies can’t use a state DNA database to investigate the possible relatives of people whose genetic material matches those on file, a panel of state appellate judges ruled Thursday. The court found the use of the database can disproportionately target people of color.
The decision said if police want to do so-called "familial DNA" searches, state lawmakers will have to pass a bill authorizing them to do so.
Law enforcement agencies routinely run DNA they collect at crime scenes through the state DNA database, checking if it matches anyone whose genetic material is on file there. Allowing a familial DNA search would also allow scientists to see if the DNA police submit might belong to someone related to a person on file in the database.
In a 3-2 decision, Associate Justice Judith J. Gische wrote that the state Commission on Forensic Sciences–which voted to allow familial searches back in 2017–didn’t have the authority to do so. She noted that such a policy will put some people under greater scrutiny by law enforcement simply because they are related to a person who has been convicted of a crime.
Because a large percentage of people whose DNA is in the database are people of color, familial searches will also put their relatives under disproportionate scrutiny, she said.
Spokespeople for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services and the NYPD said their offices are reviewing the decision. The state has the right to appeal the decision.
According to the state DCJS website, when familial DNA searches were allowed, they were only permitted under certain conditions, and when investigating the most serious crimes. DCJS spokesperson Janine Kava said since 2017 her office has done 30 searches altogether. Of those, 10 resulted in names being released to law enforcement and two resulted in arrests on homicide charges. Both cases are still pending in court.
“Familial DNA searching is an incredibly powerful tool that has assisted our investigators in solving violent crime,” an NYPD spokesperson, who did not provide a name, said.
Dave Pollock, a staff attorney for the DNA Unit at the Legal Aid Society of New York, which represented the plaintiffs, said familial searches unfairly target people of color.
“Familial DNA searching targets Black and Latinx New Yorkers for no other reason than a person’s immutable family bonds,” he said “That is why it is such a controversial practice, and the Court was correct to hold that the People’s elected representatives are the only ones empowered to decide whether and how to use it in New York.”