Maryland to limit how police can use DNA data

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The Baltimore Sun published a rather strange article today dealing with violent crime in Maryland. It begins with the tale of Michael Anthony Temple. He was shot down in the streets of the Odenton neighborhood in 2010, later dying of his injuries. While there were no witnesses to the crime, the shooter had left behind a cigarette butt and a coffee cup, each of which produced DNA samples. Unfortunately, after running the genetic signature through the criminal database, they failed to find a match. The case went cold for nine years.

Then, in 2019, investigators ran the DNA samples against publicly accessible genetics databases. A match was produced and the police arrested Fred Lee Frampton jr. for the murder. So… good news, right? Justice might be delayed, but at least it was served. The reason I called the Baltimore Sun article “strange,” however, is because all of that history sets us up for the real thrust of the story. Clearly we can’t have the police using public genealogy information even if it puts a killer behind bars. With that in mind, the state will now begin limiting how the police can access that data.

Now, Maryland becomes one of the first states in the country to set rules limiting how police can use the popular websites and their databases. The General Assembly passed the legislation this year. And though Gov. Larry Hogan didn’t sign the bill, he allowed it to become law anyway…

“This is a new frontier in forensics, so you want to make certain that there are protections,” said Sen. Charles Sydnor III, a Democrat from Baltimore County who sponsored the bill.

Police departments came to realize the investigatory power of genealogy websites after the arrest of the notorious Golden State Killer in 2018. California authorities said they were led to Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. by family tree searches of genealogy websites. He pleaded guilty to more than a dozen murders and was sentenced to life in prison.

To be fair to the Maryland legislators who passed this law, they aren’t completely blocking access by the police to sites such as Ancestry and GEDmatch. But those tools may only be applied in cases of serious, violent crimes such as murder and rape. Also, they will need to demonstrate that they have “exhausted all other investigatory methods” first and the searching must be conducted under the supervision of a judge.

Why do these lawmakers keep succumbing to their worst instincts? Those tools are the only reason that Michael Anthony Temple’s murderer was identified. They were the path that finally led to the arrest of the Golden State Killer. So the Maryland legislature took one look at those results and immediately said, ‘gee. We’ve better find a way to nip this in the bud.’

Whether you are approaching this question on the basis of privacy considerations or Fifth Amendment concerns, the objections don’t appear to hold much water. People are entitled to privacy in their medical records, but these are customers who willingly submitted their DNA to a public database as part of genealogy research. It should be fair game.

As far as questions over the legality of a search go, the method is either valid and legal or it isn’t. If searching through a public database is legal, why would you restrict the police from exploring that avenue of investigation until “all other methods” have been exhausted? That’s like arriving at the scene of a murder and noticing that there are surveillance cameras installed in the area. But the legislature tells you that you can’t look at the videos until you’ve brought in bloodhounds to see if they can pick up a scent. Meanwhile, the killer is still running loose.

This is all too reminiscent of when Baltimore was set up with a pair of surveillance planes to help track down criminals more effectively. It worked out very well and, best of all, it came at no cost to the taxpayers because the program was funded by a pair of philanthropists from Texas. So what happened? The program was canceled for being “too intrusive.”

All too often it just seems as if these people are not just uninterested in curbing their gang violence problem. They are actively fighting against anything that might help them get it under control. And yet the same occupants of this clown car keep getting elected back into office over and over again. It’s truly hard to have much sympathy for them at this point.