HB231: Proposal would keep law enforcement from probing DNA data

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A West Valley City Republican is sponsoring a bill in the 2020 Legislature that will prevent police from accessing at-home DNA tests to perform familial DNA searches.

Rep. Craig Hall filed HB231 in the wake of increased police to use data from at-home DNA tests to crack cold cases, such as finding the Golden State Killer who’d eluded investigators for decades. The practice also has raised ethical and privacy concerns.

Companies such as Ancestry, which is based in Lehi, Utah, have already banned the practice. According to Ancestry.com’s law enforcement guide, they “do not allow law enforcement to use Ancestry’s services to investigate crimes.” 

Utah began the practice of using familial DNA searches in DNA databases in 2014. Hall’s bill would only protect private companies from being searched by police, but federal and local databases could still be searched. 

CODIS and the Constitutional practices of DNA indexing 

In 1990, the FBI created a pilot system called CODIS, or the Combined DNA Index System. This system was shared nationally in 1994 and allowed for DNA to be accessed for law enforcement purposes. Despite allowing individual states access to the program, the federal government has not set a standard of guidelines when it comes to how state governments can instruct local law enforcement to use this access. 

In the state of Utah during the 2019 Legislative session, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, proposed HB421, which would provide more than $500,000 in funding to create a CODIS lab in the state of Utah. He said that currently some kits in the state of Utah take more than a year to process. While the bill passed the House and a Senate committee vote, the full Senate never voted on the bill.

“Some of the DNA legislation that we have passed in the past several years has made a big difference in apprehending criminals,” Eliason said as he presented the bill to the House floor. 

Some of the programs used in Utah’s CODIS testing consist of systems called lineage testing and familial DNA searching. Over the past 30 years as CODIS labs have run DNA through the system, they have been able to set certain precedents that allow for partial matches to be found. A partial match is one that indicates a type of familial relationship. This could be anyone from a third cousin to a sibling or parent. 

As partial matches are found, the door has been opened to experts to perform lineage testing which uses genetics and genealogy as it draws lines between a person’s lineage. FDS, or familial DNA searching, has also been created. This is a separate software that detects and statistically ranks relatives. 

In 2015, there were only 130 CODIS labs in the country, and of those labs, only 40% have proceeded with partial matches and 11% have proceeded with familial DNA matches. Utah was the ninth state that proceeded with conducting familial DNA testing. 

A rising need for genealogical education and training: Practical concerns surrounding genealogical forensics

As labs across the country are facing this new focus of processing criminals, the funding and education has not caught up to the amount of emphasis that legislation is placing on this new initiative. 

A 2014 study surveyed 103 of the 130 CODIS labs in the U.S. Of the 103 surveyed, none of the labs have had, or required, any official training to be held by those performing a familial DNA search. Of the training that they did provide, most of the training consisted of less than one day and was not conducted by a professional.  

In the United States, BYU is the only university that offers a postsecondary degree in genealogy. According to BYU’s website, the program, “offers intensive training and prepares students for a variety of professions and community service.” 

Other certificate programs exist at universities such as Boston College, but only one bachelor’s degree program exists in North America. 

Utah rape kits and cases: Monetary concerns surrounding DNA research in Utah

The Utah State Crime Lab requested $2.4 million in order to fund enough crime lab technicians who specialize in DNA testing to overcome backlogs on Utah rape kits that range into the thousands. 

As kits have been processed, many kits have been matched to the CODIS in the FBI system or in the state of Utah. 

Utah State Crime Lab Director Jay Henry said his staff has begun to, “see an increased amount of submissions begin to come in as the different state entities have a ‘test all’ policy among the departments.”

The crime lab was only given half of the funds in 2017 and has yet to overcome the backlogs as of December of 2019. There are only nine technicians currently serving in the Utah Crime Lab.  

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