Patterico's Pontifications

11/25/2008

DNA and Familial Searching

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 8:24 pm

Once again, the L.A. Times is writing about DNA . . . and once again, I’m getting angry.

Today’s article is about familial searching. The concept is as simple as it is ingenious: when authorities have a DNA sample from a violent crime scene, they can search databases for an exact match. But if they don’t get one, they might broaden their search for “profiles similar enough to belong to a parent or sibling.” If they get a hit, they can look at that person’s relatives as potential suspects.

The technique has solved murders and set innocent people free. But instead of focusing on the successes, the paper emphasizes handwringing over phantom privacy concerns. The deck headline says: “California’s familial searching policy, the most extensive in the nation, looks for genetic ties between culprits and kin. Privacy advocates and legal experts are nervous.” This theme is echoed high in the story, beginning with the seventh paragraph, which appears on the front page:

But the idea of scrutinizing families based exclusively on their possible genetic relationship to an unknown suspect makes privacy advocates and legal experts nervous. They argue that it effectively expands criminal databases to include every offender’s relatives, a potentially unconstitutional intrusion.

“There is kind of a queasiness about having the sins of your father come back to haunt you,” said Stanford University law professor Hank Greely, who supports familial searching despite those concerns. “It feels like we’re holding people responsible for the crimes of their family.”

Because the technology isn’t perfect, families with no connection to the perpetrator inevitably will be investigated, some scientists and legal experts say.

I have news for you, L.A. Times: as with any other human endeavor, criminal investigation in general isn’t perfect. People with no connection to the perpetrator will inevitably be investigated at times.

Does that mean we should stop investigating crime? Since when do we not investigate leads just because they could initially point investigators in the wrong direction?

Understand clearly what is going on here. We’re talking about searching people who are already in the database, to see if they might be a sibling of the person who did the murder.

If there is a close enough match, then — as with any other lead based on evidence — the lead may pan out or it may not.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say that a young woman is kidnapped, held in a home, sexually abused, and eventually released. During her ordeal, she sneaks into a room and overhears the suspect saying to someone on the phone: “Take the money to my brother James. He just got out of prison and he’s living over on Cedar St.”

An investigator could search property records databases, to see if anyone named James lives on Cedar St. If he finds one or more such people, he could attempt to learn whether any of those Jameses has a brother. He could search criminal databases to see whether any such brothers were recently released from prison.

Or, he could just do nothing, out of deference to some insane phantom privacy concern on the part of innocent people with brothers on Cedar Street named James.

Searching the database for one’s relatives seems less intrusive than, say, knocking on doors in a neighborhood where a murder has occurred. Can you believe the incredible privacy violation involved when authorities with badges and guns come knocking on the door of your home — your sanctuary! your castle! — merely because you happen to live near the murder?!?!

Oh, the intrusion! Oh, the invasion of privacy! Privacy advocates are nervous! It feels like we’re holding people responsible for living near the scene of a crime!!!!

Yet homicide detectives routinely do door-knocks to look for witnesses, and no rational person objects. What’s the difference here?

The paper emphasizes the privacy concerns, placing them in a headline and on the front page. Mentioned as almost an afterthought are the successes, including a case that was solved, after which “[a] person who had spent 18 years behind bars for the crime was freed.”

Gee, being incarcerated for 18 years for a crime you didn’t commit seems like a rather major invasion of privacy, doesn’t it? Why, it almost seems as extreme as having authorities ask you a few questions, even though you’re innocent!

Yet that tidbit is not on the front page, or mentioned in any headline.

As ridiculous as the concerns of the privacy advocates assuredly are, my beef isn’t that the paper is reporting those concerns. It’s that the newspaper assigns such great weight to such piddling worries. Why not put in the deck headline that innocent people have been freed from prison using this technique? Why not make sure that appears on Page One?

I think I know why not.

Many journalists see their role as being a watchdog — a kind of check on government. That can be a laudable goal, if it’s kept in perspective. But when this philosophy causes journalists to approach every story about a governmental initiative with a skeptical attitude, the ensuing coverage can subtly influence the public’s attitude against policies whose good effects far outweigh the ill.

The idea that the newspaper gives such prominence to the phantom concerns of privacy zealots, while mentioning an 18-year prison sentence served by an innocent person as almost an afterthought, shows how skewed the newspaper’s perspective truly is.

I’m beginning to think Jason Felch and Maura Dolan simply don’t like using DNA to solve crimes. Maybe if it had been the newspaper’s idea, rather than the government’s, they would feel differently.

42 Responses to “DNA and Familial Searching”

  1. Patterico – Am I missing something? I thought DNA stood for “Dude Needs Apartment.” What does that have to do with solving crimes?

    Kato

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  2. This confusion between “investigation” and “prosecution” has been heading getting more and more extreme. Martha Stewart is convicted for lying while being cooperative about a non-crime; Ezra Klein is investigated toward bankruptcy as a means toward quashing his freedom of speech.

    I would argue that this is one of the greatest threats to our common society that is out there. If there can’t be a good-faith exception to talking with police, the universal response to any questions will be “f***-off”. And the more investigations that are run as star-chambers, the more that thugs and terrorists become acceptable neighborhood figures because they were “railroaded”.

    cthulhu (852c36)

  3. I think using DNA from a criminal database is just fine but what will be the next step? What will happen when infant DNA testing becomes mandatory?

    Some states take DNA samples from newborn infants with permission from the mothers. Some mothers claim to have been pressured into giving consent. Some claim they were pressured more when they refused permission.

    Will a United Nations goal of having DNA samples taken from every baby born result in a vast DNA database with samples that could be used in criminal investigations?

    L.Hackett (8966a7)

  4. I was forced, upon birth, to give a foot print.

    I survived.

    It absolutely should be mandatory that a DNA sample be taken from all newborns and made part of the birth certification process.

    The LAT is the very worst at using “Some say” to justify stories. The first time I read it in a story, I was flabbergasted. If I had used that in my Journalism 101 class, I would have received an F.

    In that spirit…”Some say that the LAT is an evil enterprise, rotting society from within, whilst enjoying precious protections from the very society it destroys.”

    Some also say the moon is made of green cheese and that the LAT, as currently constituted, will be a “going concern” 12 months from now.

    Ed (281252)

  5. “Martha Stewart is convicted for lying while being cooperative about a non-crime”

    cthulhu – It seems like portraying somebody as a cooperative witness and watching them get convicted on a couple of counts of obstruction of justice might raise a few arguments about intellectual honesty. With respect to selling stock based on inside information to avoid losses not being a crime, most people would disagree with you there, but that charge was dropped. Martha was once a stockbroker, she should have known better.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  6. “Will a United Nations goal of having DNA samples taken from every baby born result in a vast DNA database with samples that could be used in criminal investigations?”

    L.Hackett – Do you see a problem with that if it could speed up investigations?

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  7. Do you see a problem with that if it could speed up investigations?

    Dunno about you, but *I* sure have as hell of a problem with it…

    Scott Jacobs (90ff96)

  8. Scott – Why?

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  9. DNA implicated OJ, so it must be wrong.

    Kevin Murphy (0b2493)

  10. Because I enjoy those pesky civil liberties. You want my blood, or the blood of one of my kids?

    Wear body armor when you come to collect it.

    Scott Jacobs (90ff96)

  11. Patterico, this is my kind of subject, since I have a doctorate in molecular genetics (for all the good it did me!). I have done many of the procedures under discussion (and taught them to students).

    I have taught in several liberal arts colleges, where I often get the students to debate this kind of issue. One thing became very clear.

    It’s not about the technology, but the intent of the investigation. I have listened to “experts” rail about how inaccurate DNA testing is (and it is not), and yet love that technology to pieces when it serves their needs in the courtroom. Some love it when it convicts, and hate it when it frees prisoners. Others, the reverse.

    To me, the subject is our societal problem in a nutshell: feelings are more important than facts.

    But then, I am not a lawyer, where that kind of sentiment is no surprise.

    In the classroom debates, students were up front with me: they were very suspicious of any technology wielded by prosecutors, and completely comfortable with that same analysis used by defense lawyers.

    Same technology, same limitations, different viewpoints.

    It’s very sad. There really needs to be a high school course called “critical thinking.” The problem there is that many teachers would define that course as “agree with the teachers.”

    But we live in a world of DNA pyrosequencing and hadron colliders and ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope. We need technical literacy as much as we need to work on grammar with students today.

    We definitely need to rethink education overall, and surgically excise all the political fashionistas and their wares.

    Good luck on that, I know.

    Eric Blair (8f93a0)

  12. Our Founding Fathers didn’t find anything wrong with a healthy skepticism towards those who wield government power, eric.

    It’s your political views that are out of step with American traditions.

    parsnip (1e884c)

  13. “Yet homicide detectives routinely do door-knocks to look for witnesses, and no rational person objects. What’s the difference here?”

    From my personal point of view, the difference is that I was asked.
    And, yes, I agree with Scott with one exception:
    Wear body armor and bring a warrant.

    DL Sly (23a466)

  14. From my personal point of view, the difference is that I was asked.

    So, if you’re the guy in the database, you weren’t asked — but you’re not the target, so who cares?

    If you’re the suspect, then a) you weren’t run in the database, and b) who really cares if you’re asked or not? We’re not playing Emily Post. You’re the suspect in a crime.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  15. Patterico @14 –

    If you are the suspect, it is in your interest to remain undiscovered, but it is presumably in the interest of everyone else for you to be uncovered as soon as possible.

    If you are not the suspect, who gives a shit.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  16. A vegetable writes:


    “..It’s your political views that are out of step with American traditions….”

    Oh, heavens! My political views can be gleaned from a couple of posts? And here I thought it was those nasty Republicans who were so narrow and judgmental and marching in lock-step!

    Regardless. I do indeed wonder what our Founding Fathers would say about a number of recent political events.

    Eric Blair (8f93a0)

  17. Many journalists see their role as being a watchdog — a kind of check on government. That can be a laudable goal, if it’s kept in perspective. But when this philosophy causes journalists to approach every story about a governmental initiative with a skeptical attitude, the ensuing coverage can subtly influence the public’s attitude against policies whose good effects far outweigh the ill.

    I think it was Instapundit who said, in reference to Helen “Watchdog” Thomas, that simply barking at everything doesn’t make you a watchdog. That analogy seems apropos here. Take out the distracting references to DNA, and you’re left with an article whose headline might as well have been “Don’t Investigate Crimes.”

    Xrlq (62cad4)

  18. “We’re talking about searching people who are already in the database, to see if they might be a sibling of the person who did the murder.”

    When folks got understandably upset over privacy violations of joe the plumber, it was in part over government searches of databases joe already was in. Over sometimes even searces of public record databases (which these are not).

    I think one of the main privacy interests implicated here is that one does not know they are implicated by this database, and one cannot really remove themselves or correct this implication if it exists incorrectly. I don’t think privacy problems end once you’re in the database. I think in many ways they begin there.

    imdw (1d0ada)

  19. “Take out the distracting references to DNA, and you’re left with an article whose headline might as well have been “Don’t Investigate Crimes.””

    It is an article about DNA searches. So if you take that out you won’t be left with much. Good observation.

    imdw (1d0ada)

  20. “If you are the suspect, it is in your interest to remain undiscovered, but it is presumably in the interest of everyone else for you to be uncovered as soon as possible.”

    If I’m a suspect, its also in my interest for someone else to become even more suspect as soon as possible.

    imdw (9017aa)

  21. daleyrocks: — With respect to selling stock based on inside information to avoid losses not being a crime, most people would disagree with you there, but that charge was dropped.
    .
    No it wasn’t. It was prosecuted separately and eventually settled by payment by Ms. Stewart. See S.D.N.Y. 03 CV 4070

    cboldt (3d73dd)

  22. Witness tell police the bank robber escaped in a 2005 White Bronco with California plates. Is is the LAT’s position that the police cannot use the car registration data base to find this 2005 White Bronco because it might violate the “privacy” of Bronco owners to account for their whereabouts or to disclose who was using their Bronco at the time of the crime?

    Perfect Sense (9d1b08)

  23. #3 asked, “What will happen when infant DNA testing becomes mandatory?”

    One of the first things will be that a significant percentage of new fathers will find out they’re unrelated to the baby. My guess is somewhere in the 15 to 20% range. The increase in legal proceedings will more than off-set the decline in belated revelation shows on daytime TV.

    Ropelight (5b609a)

  24. I only hire orphans without criminal records for my button-men.

    neither dana (5fa892)

  25. I think there’s a streak of Luddism in all of us. Judges and lawyers are just as suspicious, or more, when it comes to forensic science, as witnessed by the ongoing fight over the standard for admission of scientific evidence. We do not have a uniform one nationwide.

    nk (5fa892)

  26. I attribute this trait of leftism to the human need to feel heroic or intelligent. Outrage at a nonexistent threat is safe yet satisfying. Writing for or reading an unpopular newspaper has an air of elitism or martyrdom.

    These people are not well educated and are not courageous, and they can’t stand the truth of that.

    Patricia (ee5c9d)

  27. Its almost become a gimmick that the LAT automatically assumes the position of not so much public watchdog but rather contrarian at large. To me, public watchdog leads one to believe that they have our collective best interest at large and I guess I no longer believe they do. Instead, I believe they take these positions for their own self-serving interest – if they assume this position and cast doubt or suspicion on a newly adopted procedure and perchance some sort of mishap occurs, they can be the first to pat themselves on the back for having been prescient and therefore showing the public that obviously we need them.

    The motive seems selfish. In reading through the article, I thought the title and deck headline were not only misleading but did a great disservice to the new procedure and law enforcement’s success with it. But then again, that might just be the point.

    Dana (79a78b)

  28. Hey Ed, there is no data base of baby footprints. Your baby footprint is not in a database that can be used in a criminal investigation.

    Daileyrocks, Yes, I have a problem with a world wide DNA database. I don’t want to be in one and who knows what crimes some other country could drum up against me. My DNA in a database isn’t going to help solve any crime anywhere. Is yours?

    In regards to search warrants to access a non-criminal DNA database: Search warrants are not all true. Some search warrants are requested when a case is new and there isn’t much information while some cops don’t always tell all the truth and many tell a type of truth with innuendos deliberately used to mislead. A warrant based on a DNA relationship between two people who may be distant relatives, some fourth cousins who have never seen each other, some relation from a illicit affair, where would it stop?

    L.Hackett (f22922)

  29. Hey, L, I was forced to give a foot print. I had no say.

    I am a libertarian on the political spectrum. I feel about our government pretty much as Heston felt about the apes – “Keep you filthy damn hands off of me.”

    Yet, I would love to be able to tell an investigating officer that my DNA was in the database and s/he was free to try to link me. As an innocent, the database protects me.

    Countless innocents have been released thanks to the science behind our DNA. With my DNA sample in a criminal database, I am fully confident that this innocent (me) would avoid all sorts of nastiness if I were ever to fall under suspicion.

    Ed (281252)

  30. “As an innocent, the database protects me.”

    So long as you’re not a false positive. And the database is only used to find people suspected of crimes

    imdw (a60516)

  31. “So, if you’re the guy in the database, you weren’t asked — but you’re not the target, so who cares?”

    I do. You asked what the difference was. I told you, what – TO ME – was the difference. And by your response, I can only infer that my preferences regarding my privacy don’t matter when it comes to a police investigation.
    Nice.

    DL Sly (23a466)

  32. Can we get this straight, please? The guy in the database is a convicted criminal. He’s not a perfect match. So he’s out of the picture. But his close relatives still need to be eliminated. That’s all there is to it.

    I have no idea what this has to do with privacy. The felon in the database is certainly not entitled to any. As for his father and brothers, it’s their tough luck that he brought them into the DNA radar. They should have put him up for anonymous adoption when he was born.

    nk (5fa892)

  33. I have now become quite interested in this issue given Patterico’s criticisms of the LA Times coverage of this. On some points you have been correct, but here you are WAY off base, to the point of getting a bit paranoid about the reporters’ work. More important, your prosecutorial perspective pretty much blinds you to the very real issues that were raised.

    The LA Times article not only talks about the concerns, it SHOWS that these concerns slowed the adoption of such techniques in the US as compared to the UK, where privacy concerns are only now slowly entering the law from the EU regulations and from slow adoption of common law developments in the US. On the whole, though, the UK legal systems views privacy as a very minimal consideration, so they jumped on this DNA screening much more quickly, and with some significant results.

    You are being a bit of a jackass to contend that the LA Times article’s discussion of privacy issues is evidence of reportorial bias when, in fact, there have been such concerns by some government agencies. Reporting on the slow progress (as compared to the UK) of familial DNA searches does not ENDORSE the objections that have slowed its adoption.

    Moreover, there is a very principled argument that says this is something one wants to restrain, as it creates extraordinary temptations to the government. As L.Hackett points out, what stop full-on investigations of relatives? Why not issue warrants to search all family members houses once you have identified them?

    Moreover, once you establish the legitimacy of unlimited DNA searches for crimes, the next steps are (a) to expand the database via mandatory contributions of genetic material, and (b) to employ the databases for other, non-criminal purposes for identification, screening and other purposes.

    Obviously, from the police-state perspective, nothing would be better than having a national or better yet international database of all genetic material. But once you have created this knowledge base–the database equivalent of an h-bomb–what will be done with it?

    These are not “phantom concerns of privacy zealots”. They are very real worries for people who are justifiably sceptical of the unfettered collection of intimate personal data by the government.

    Cyrus Sanai (aa741d)

  34. “The concept is as simple as it is ingenious: when authorities have a DNA sample from a violent crime scene, they can search databases for an exact match. But if they don’t get one, they might broaden their search for “profiles similar enough to belong to a parent or sibling.” If they get a hit, they can look at that person’s relatives as potential suspects.”
    — Patterico @ 8:24 pm

    “Can we get this straight, please? The guy in the database is a convicted criminal. He’s not a perfect match. So he’s out of the picture. But his close relatives still need to be eliminated. That’s all there is to it.”

    “I have no idea what this has to do with privacy. The felon in the database is certainly not entitled to any. As for his father and brothers, it’s their tough luck that he brought them into the DNA radar. They should have put him up for anonymous adoption when he was born.”
    Comment by nk — 11/26/2008 @ 1:27 pm

    I respectfully submit that you consider going back to grade school to improve your reading comprehension skills.

    DL Sly (23a466)

  35. I suggest you take a running jump at a rolling donut.

    nk (5fa892)

  36. imdw:

    “Take out the distracting references to DNA, and you’re left with an article whose headline might as well have been “Don’t Investigate Crimes.””

    It is an article about DNA searches. So if you take that out you won’t be left with much. Good observation.

    It’s an article that purports to be about DNA, but makes ridiculous arguments which, if applied with any consistency, would be arguments not against DNA-based criminal investigations in particular, but against criminal investigations in general. Shitty observation.

    Xrlq (62cad4)

  37. These are not “phantom concerns of privacy zealots”. They are very real worries for people who are justifiably sceptical of the unfettered collection of intimate personal data by the government.

    We say “skeptical” here in America, barrister.

    As to the substance:

    There is much we take for granted that, if we didn’t have it, would cause “privacy advocates” to flip their collective lid.

    The government wants to collect criminal history data on every citizen?!?!?! How Orwellian!!1!

    The government wants access to property records databases? The potential for abuse is rampant!!!!!!!1!1!!!!!

    (Analogously, if we didn’t have such a concept as “registering to vote,” Democrats would scream if we tried to implement it. It would be seen as racist. Lawsuits would be filed. Handwringing editorials would be published.)

    But we give prosecutors access to rap sheets, and investigators access to property records — and a hell of a lot more.

    Are there abuses? Sure. Are they rare? Yup. Does the utility of the databases outweigh the potential for abuse? There’s no question in my mind that it does.

    And so it is with DNA databases. They help crimes to be solved, with minimal intrusion on privacy.

    I would absolutely support every person’s DNA being taken at birth. It would result in many fewer innocent people being convicted, and many fewer guilty people being allowed to walk the streets.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  38. The only problem here is that Obama didn’t propose this program. Once he does, you can be sure these ‘privacy advocates’ and the newspaper’s slanted coverage will be history. So Obama has written, so it shall be done.

    eaglewingz08 (c46606)

  39. #38

    Actually, I’m a solicitor, not a barrister. I confess that after years of living in England and the influence of my English wife’s proofreading, I sometimes can’t remember which spelling is appropriate for which country.

    I’m glad you bring out your biases on this Patterico. You give short shrift to privacy. That is the English common law view; the whole common law of privacy is a purely American development triggered by a law review article by Brandeis (you know that, but your readers might not).

    I think your view is wrong, as do many others, and your characterization of anyone who feels uncomfortable about that as “privacy zealots” is jackassery. There’s nothing more intimate about a person than his DNA profile. If one commit a felony, one lose those privacy rights along with lots of other rights (guns, voting, etc.) as punishment. But give up my most intimate medical information to the government to do what they will? That’s little different from scouring my medical records

    I’m not saying all relative searches are wrong. I think if one’s DNA ends up on a database because of a felony conviction, that is part of the punishment, and one takes one’s lumps. But DNA profiles end up in government hands for other reasons as well, such as witness exclusions, and I don’t think that should give the government free reign to access them again, or perhaps even keep them. It’s perfectly appropriate for the government to be very careful and thoughtful in moving forward on this.

    To sum up, that you are fan of the surveillance state does not make everyone who isn’t a “zealot”. It certainly does not make that particular article inaccurate or biased; here it is your biases that are on display, not the reporters’.

    #39

    One of the worst things Obama did in his legislative career was flip his position on warrantless wiretaps, and he was rightly lambasted by the privacy rights community for this.

    Cyrus Sanai (aa741d)

  40. Here’s a related question for the Legal Beagles. Beginning approximately 30 years ago as a condition of employment I was required to submit my fingerprints various federal and state agencies. Over the years as employment has changed, new sets of prints were submitted, the federal agencies changed and the states and state agencies changed as well.

    With no criminal record, do those prints become searchable in whatever database they reside, to aid law enforcement in solving crime? I do not recall any sets of my prints being sent directly to the FBI.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  41. “I would absolutely support every person’s DNA being taken at birth. It would result in many fewer innocent people being convicted, and many fewer guilty people being allowed to walk the streets.”

    And God only knows what the government might choose to do with it at a latter date. Joe the plumber is a perfect example of why government should not have unfettered access to citizens’ data. The VA losing data on its patients is another. The potential for abuse and/or carelessness is what makes us “privacy zealots” so concerned.

    Sean (e3a7dc)


Powered by WordPress.

Page loaded in: 0.2606 secs.