Public DNA Databases – The Debate Continues


Using genealogy DNA is once again in the news. I read an article written by a lawyer about how public DNA databases amounted to an illegal search and seizure, thereby violating 4th amendment rights in the US. Except, I don’t think it does. For those not following Family Tree genetics in the use of identifying assailants in violent crimes, most places where you submit your DNA allows you to upload it to a site like GEDMatch to look for genetic relatives. And those databases are now being used by trained genealogists to find biological matches to those samples in the databases.

My problem with the idea that it is an illegal search and seizure has to do with the database itself. It’s “public”. In my mind, it’s no different than if you threw away a cigarette butt and they got DNA off it. And there’s a precedent for familial DNA being used to get a warrant for an involuntary sample from a suspect.

Most people don’t know that when Dennis Rader of Wichita was first put on the suspect list for the BTK serial killer, they didn’t have enough evidence to compel a DNA sample. So they took the matter to his adult children and they willingly submitted DNA samples to prove their father’s innocence. When those samples proved to be partial matches, that was taken to a judge and a warrant was secured for Rader’s DNA, which was a match to the BTK killer.

In the last 40 years, we’ve all learned quite a bit about DNA and about the fact that anything we discard in public is not subject to needing a search and seizure warrant, because it’s “public” property at that point. I get that our DNA is very intimate, but how is your cousin submitting a profile to GEDMatch different than you drinking a cup of Starbucks’ finest and throwing the cup away in a public trash can?

Of course, I’m also of the mindset that if you don’t want to go to prison, you shouldn’t commit crimes, so maybe I’m old fashioned.

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