Times Union: Editorial: New York's new suspects

Photo illustration by Jeff Boyer/Times Union

THE ISSUE:

The state quietly expands its DNA database-searching parameters to include relatives of unknown suspects.

THE STAKES:

A policy fraught with broad societal implications should not be framed by bureaucrats.

Millions of New Yorkers may be well on their way to becoming persons of interest, if not suspects, in criminal investigations, even if they never got so much as a traffic ticket, simply because of their DNA.

The reason: a sweeping policy change with profound implications for individual privacy that was decided by state bureaucrats and unelected officials without a word of legislative debate or public notice.

The change concerns familial searches of New York's DNA database, which holds genetic data on about 681,000 people convicted of crimes since it was established by law in 1994.

Until recently, if police submitted a DNA sample collected at a crime scene, analysts could search only for an exact match. "Familial" searching expands the results to an unknown suspect's potential relatives in the database — and opens the door to all their relatives being suspected, too, even those not in the database.

Law enforcement authorities say this is just another investigative tool, one that's allowed in some other states. Critics, including the Legal Aid Society of New York, note that the state Legislature has declined to pass bills to allow it here. But in October 2017, the Division of Criminal Justice Services, the Commission on Forensic Science, and the commission's DNA subcommittee authorized the policy anyway, giving the sole authority to approve familial searching applications from police agencies to DCJS acting Commissioner Michael C. Green.

We certainly appreciate the desire to solve crimes. That's hardly the only consideration here, though.

It's important to remember the history of DNA searching in New York. When the database was first established, the Legislature limited it to samples from people convicted of murder, assault or sexual offenses. Over the years, however, that mandate has gradually expanded to cover misdemeanors, too. The state now says familial searches will be used only to solve homicides and other violent felonies — the same sort of assurance that preceded the last slippery slope.

It's also important to remember the controversies surrounding the use of DNA in crime-solving in New York, including allegations of manipulated results and the use of questionable methods to analyze samples.

And it's important to bear in mind that people of color have long been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement in New York — making it likely they will be disproportionately targeted by familial searches.

No one except criminals wants crimes to go unsolved, and familial searching offers the potential to solve more. But given all the concerns of privacy, due process and racial justice, this is not a matter that should be decided by people whose main concern is crime-solving — and who can't be expected to weigh those uncomfortable questions too deeply. It's for elected officials to consider whether millions of New Yorkers who haven't done anything wrong may someday have to prove their innocence just because they happen to be related to someone who did.