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Maryland among first in U.S. to limit how police use 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.

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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.

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“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.

Maryland’s prohibition, however, was specific to the state’s DNA database. Nothing prohibited detectives from trying consumer sites.

Ram and others urged lawmakers beginning in 2019 to extend the prohibition to the websites. Law enforcement officials testified against such a ban, arguing that members of the public had no reasonable expectation to privacy when uploading their DNA profiles into a public, searchable database. The debate went on for two years.

The final bill represents a compromise, lawmakers said. With it, Maryland joins Montana and Utah as the first states to limit how police may use genealogy websites.

“Efforts like the law in Maryland and in Montana and also Utah demonstrate that people across the political spectrum find unfettered law enforcement use of consumer genetic data chilling, concerning and privacy invasive,” Ram said.

Maryland’s new law also ensures defendants charged with a crime may turn to the genealogy websites to prove their innocence. The law was praised by the nonprofit Innocence Project in New York.

Similarly, the Maryland bill requires police to obtain the consent of non-suspects if officers want to use their DNA. State officials also will be required to compile annual reports on how often police are using the websites.

“The final product strikes a balance between the legitimate law enforcement use of this technology in certain instances where the crime is just so heinous,” said Del. Emily Shetty, a Democrat from Montgomery County who sponsored the legislation. “This first-in-the-nation effort can easily be replicated across the country, and it should be.”

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