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Curbs on biometric DNA searches by cops: Not a trend yet



Hesitancy by state governments to rein in police use of consumer databases for crime investigations is eroding.

In Maryland, a movement to ban police from using consumer DNA databases to search for biometric evidence has resulted instead in less-toothy regulations. And in Montana, legislators have required a search warrant before using consumer DNA services.

Maryland’s law was sponsored by Democrats, according to the New York Times. A Republican sponsored the Montana legislation. They are the first two U.S. states to regulate law enforcement’s use of DNA databases, according to The Verge.

An article in that publication notes that Nevada has used a consumer DNA service to identify a victim and to provide biometric evidence in an ongoing murder trial.

The Maryland law takes effect October 1; it is not clear when Montana’s bill, which has been signed by the governor, will take effect.

A legislative attempt last year to ban the practice in Utah went nowhere, and Washington politicians are debating whether to require court orders.

There are five major consumer DNA services, the well-marketed 23andMe and Ancestry, and the lesser-known MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. Only the latter three cooperate with requests by law officials to check evidence against biometric databases.

The legislation passed in Maryland mandates law enforcement agencies to win approval from a judge for a search for cases involving murder, human trafficking and kidnapping. A DNA service also must inform members and the public that its genetic database can be used by police.

Montana’s warrant requirement is waived in incidents when a person has waived privacy protection.

This is not an easy vote to take. The serial murderer called the Golden State Killer in California was identified in 2018 after police used MyHeritage’s DNA-matching. Cold cases now tied to that killer, dating from 1973 to 1986, were cleared.

Politically and personally, it can be hard to approve a measure that might allow violent criminals to hide from justice. And the pressure to move DNA searches under the U.S. Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches is increasing, though it does not equal calls for criminal justice.

Ambivalence exists overseas, too. Fifty-five percent of British adults polled said last year that private-company DNA should be given to law enforcement to solve crimes.

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