New York Court of Appeals: Law enforcement cannot use DNA database for family searches

Law enforcement cannot use a state DNA database to investigate possible relatives of people whose genetic material matches those on file, a panel of state appellate judges said Thursday. The court found that the use of the database may disproportionately target people of color.

According to the ruling, if police want to conduct so-called “family DNA” searches, state lawmakers will have to pass a bill authorizing them to do so.

Law enforcement routinely analyzes DNA they collect from crime scenes through the state’s DNA database, checking to see if it matches anyone whose genetic material is recorded there. Allowing a family DNA search would also allow scientists to see if DNA submitted by police might belong to someone related to someone registered in the database.

In a 3-to-2 decision, Associate Judge Judith J. Gische wrote that the state Forensic Science Commission — which voted to allow family searches in 2017 — lacked the authority to do so. She noted that such a policy will place some people under greater scrutiny by law enforcement simply because they are related to someone who has been convicted of a crime.

Because a large percentage of people whose DNA is in the database are people of color, family searches will also subject their relatives to disproportionate scrutiny, she said.

Spokespersons for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services and the NYPD said their offices are reviewing the decision. The state has the right to appeal the decision.

According to the DCJS website, when family DNA searches were allowed, they were only allowed under certain conditions and when investigating the most serious crimes. DCJS spokeswoman Janine Kava said that since 2017, her office had conducted a total of 30 searches. Of these, 10 resulted in the disclosure of names to law enforcement and two resulted in arrests for homicide. Both cases are still pending in court.

“Family DNA research is an incredibly powerful tool that has helped our investigators solve violent crimes,” said an NYPD spokesperson, who did not provide a name.

Dave Pollock, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York’s DNA unit who represented the plaintiffs, said the family searches unfairly targeted people of color.

“Family DNA research targets Black and Latino New Yorkers for no other reason than a person’s unchanging family ties,” he said. “That’s why it’s such a controversial practice, and the Court was right to hold that the elected representatives of the people are the only ones who can decide if and how to use it in New York.