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Familial DNA: to be touted or feared?

"[T]here's demonstrable success" in a powerful and developing DNA tool used to identify individuals, says a prominent geneticist and advocate of so-called "familial DNA" technology.

"It's a slippery slope," counters an attorney who works in a forensic division. That individual was a leading voice among lobbyists who successfully banned familial DNA from being deployed as an investigative tool in Maryland. Among other grounds, familial DNA has been denigrated for its potentially adverse implications regarding privacy and constitutional bans against unreasonable searches and seizures.

As far as California is concerned, the pluses derived from controlled familial DNA searches outweigh concerns based on constitutional grounds. As the Los Angeles Times noted in a recent article on the cited pros and cons of familial DNA technology, the state ushered in a comprehensive policy back in 2008, becoming "the first state in the country to do so."

Since then, more than a handful of other states have followed suit.

Familial DNA testing works like this: In instances where authorities possess the DNA of an unknown individual, they can enter its genetic profile into a database that tests samples "that match with a suspect's along several, but not all, markers." In doing so, researchers can spotlight father-son and sibling relationships.

Such a search might uncover an inmate doing time for rape. Perhaps he has a brother. Perhaps that brother ….

Although it is easy to see how such a tool can expedite police work and lead to evidence in given cases, it is equally easy to note how its application can lead to the investigation of an individual that police investigators would otherwise have no probable cause to suspect.

Is that a problem?

Some state officials say no, because such searches are limited and only used as a "last resort."

The phrase "once the genie is out of the bottle" comes readily to mind with familial DNA, though, and there will always be questions surrounding the state's reliance upon and use of the technique.

Probable cause is the underlying determinant of the Constitution's 4th Amendment. A proven defense attorney will always seek to ensure that its requirements are satisfied whenever authorities attempt to deprive an individual of his or her freedom in a criminal law case.

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